By Robbin Laird
With the coming of software upgradeable aircraft which have health management systems built in, there is a strategic opportunity or better put, a strategic imperative, to leverage those systems to gain knowledge and mastery of a combat fleet.
The opportunity is there to gain predictive knowledge about fleet performance and to shape a workforce and approach to enhanced aircraft availability and better ability to deal with the required ops tempo.
A case in point is the CH-53K.
It is a digital rich aircraft with its health maintenance system built in.
And the Marines along with NAVAIR and Sikorsky are currently working the logistics side of the aircraft at New River to determine best procedures to maintain the aircraft, and how to structure the workforce and shape a logistics infrastructure, which can be optimized for fleet operations and support.
Recently, I visited the Marine Corps-NAVAIR-Sikorsky team working the logs demo at VMX-1 to get an overview on the approach.
I am looking forward to returning later this year and to have a chance to talk with the entire team as they are present at the creation of a very different approach to combat aircraft.
An issue facing software upgradeable aircraft such as the K is the concurrency challenge. This challenge has most frequently been identified with the F-35 but it is at the heart of the change which software upgradeability brings to a fleet.
Because software drops can be placed directly into combat aircraft much more rapidly than the historical cycle of modernization, the new capabilities need to be reflected in both the pilot and maintenance simulators as well to ensure that there is integration of training, and operations across the fleet.
But the gap, which occurs between the software drop in the aircraft and the software on the simulators for both maintainers and pilots, is the concurrency challenge and one, which clearly needs to be addressed.
During my visit to New River, I had a chance to discuss this with the logs demo team but will return to this challenge and ways to resolve it in later articles.
During my visit, I had a chance to talk with Jim Lambert, the head field representative for Sikorsky working on the Log Demo. He is a very experienced CH-53 Marine who has worked with Sikorsky for a number of years in support of CH-53s operating worldwide.
He has brought that operational fleet experience to his work on the K and has been with the aircraft from before its birth and is being deployed to work with the K through its migration from factory to the logs demo to the first operational squadron.
Obviously, that kind of domain knowledge is crucial to getting the most effective combat aircraft to the force.
A key aspect of what we discussed was the opportunity to build out fleet knowledge from which aircraft availability would be enhanced over the experience of flying earlier generation CH-53s.
According to Lambert: “We’re actually collecting fleet-wide diagnostic data which has not been done before on this scale.
“Every aircraft is contributing to a metric showing usage and trending all these data points.
“Once the data is collected it is analyzed to identify any negative trends and adjust as needed to optimize the fleet and increase aircraft availability.
“This allows the fleet to identify possible part issues or new failure modes at the earliest possible point.
“This allows the operator to validate its logistics foot print real time and to be predictive with fleet needs to put parts in the system ahead of need.
“This is all done in the background of the user ensuring the maintainer has what they need when they need it.
“This sets up for a proactive based approach to fleet support as opposed to the current reactive approach.”
What I saw through the early years of the Osprey was a clear problem with lack of understanding of parts failures and lack of confidence or familiarity of Marine maintainers with the certain key parts performance which led to a more hit and miss approach to manage the parts flow.
This point was driven home to me in the interview I did with Col. Seymour prior to his retirement from the USMC, a senior Marine who knew the Osprey better than anyone.
In the exit interview I did with Colonel Christopher ‘Mongo’ Seymour in the summer of 2013 during the week prior to his retirement, the hard hitting and well-respected Marine Corps leader provided a look back and a way ahead with regard to sustainment of the Osprey.
QUESTION: A major challenge in fielding a new system is getting the supply chain up and working and getting the inevitably maintenance problems sorted out.
How have you worked through these problems?
Col. Seymour: There are three separate streams of activity which need to align to really get the new system up and running and integrated into operations.
The first is getting the Marines committed to owning the system and learning how to fix “new” problems, which come up with a new system.
The problems are different and have to be worked differently.
You need to get the maintainers to change their culture.
Sorting out problems with the gearbox is a good example of what needed to be done.
The gearbox on this airplane is very complex and central to its unique operational capabilities.
The gearbox inside the nacelle turns a rotor, and they were chipping.
This is high-end engineering.
But it was chipping and when it did so maintainers put it aside and waited for a new part.
This meant the fleet was going to be degraded.
The flight line needed to take ownership of the problem because a lot of it was self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
Maintainers would look to blame someone else when they had a Prop Rotor gearbox go bad.
As it turns out, the technology required was to use isotropic oil that actually absorbs moisture out of the air, so if you have a gearbox that’s not turning and boiling the oil out on a regular basis, it goes long term down.
It’s sucking in the moisture of the North Carolina Coast into the oil.
And the maintainers would leave it out on the flight line all opened up just breathing the air, and then when they finally got a part or piece, they try to fire it up and another gearbox would chip or another problem would manifest itself someplace else. It was an endless loop.
We took some ownership here on flight line, and shaped better maintenance practices, and to help industry.
Once we got that Prop Rotor gearbox moving back out of the red into the black, the internal culture of the community changed to become significantly more optimistic, you know.
The maintenance man-hours required to change a proper gearbox initially was estimated at 1800 maintenance man-hours.
We’re doing it now in about 380.
That’s how good we got at it.
What the logs demo with the CH-53k is focused on doing is putting the Marines on the side of the learning curve where the experience described by Col. Seymour is NOT repeated with regard to the CH-53k compared to the Osprey.
Lambert argued that working as a team from the ground up and having field representatives intimately familiar with the MAINTENANCE of the aircraft was crucial to getting the right kind of support in operations that the K would need.
In other words, how to execute the “Mongo” corrective with regard to the K?
As Lambert put it: “As field reps, we will stay on this flight line as long as we need to keep training Marines and assisting them troubleshooting airplanes.
“Our goal also is to bring fleet continuity of experience to ensure that the Marine maintainers are comfortable with the airplane and not doing what you have described as the Mongo challenge or corrective.
“We’re here to say, “No, it really is okay what you are doing. And here’s why it’s okay.”
“Our main goal is to remove insecurities generated by lack of familiarity or operating from the way the CH-53E is maintained and to try to provide them a little bit of comfort with the new approaches to sustaining a new aircraft.
“Because we’re in this crawl, walk, run environment as we stand up the K.”
In short, the Marines are pioneering a 21stcentury approach to maintaining a 21stcentury software upgradeable aircraft.
This is clearly not a CH-53E but a whole new animal which requires a whole new approach.
Editor’s Note: On defense.info in the featured defense system section, we are going back in time to when the Osprey was first being maintained by the Marines at New River.
More than a decade ago, we were present at the creation of the Osprey as a new combat capability for the USMC, and visited New River frequently starting in 2010.
To provide a baseline comparison to what the Marines did then and now in terms of standing up a new air capability, we are republishing several articles from those earlier visits.
We have just published the first in this series of insights into the brith of the Osprey Nation.
The featured photo is credited to VMX-1 and shows Marines working on the rotor head which is a major piece of what allows the aircraft to carry three times the weight externally compared to a CH-53E.
The elastomeric Rotor Head is designed to be much lower maintenance compared with the Rotor Head on the earlier version of the heavy lift helicopter and allows the blades to be removed and remounted significantly faster compared to the E.
The video is from July 2013 and highlights Col. Seymour’s perspectives on cultural change in the USMC with regard to maintenance.