The AV-8B Harrier program at Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE) reached a milestone on the aircraft’s journey into the sunset as the line delivered the final aircraft it will service for one of the Marine Corps’ last Harrier squadrons.
In September, Marine Attack Squadron 542 (VMA-542) at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point took possession of the newly refurbished AV-8B Harrier, which had been in for Planned Maintenance Interval (PMI) inspection and Integrated Maintenance Program (IMP) assembly at FRCE since December 2020. FRCE has performed 45 of these events for the squadron since PMI’s inception in 2003; however, VMA-542 is slated to become Cherry Point’s first F-35 squadron and, as a result, has no more depot maintenance scheduled for its AV-8B Harriers.
Many of the production line’s maintainers have spent their careers associated with the AV-8B Harrier program at FRCE. They say it is bittersweet to watch as the aircraft is being replaced by the more advanced technology of the F-35.
“You’ve got a lot of blood, sweat and tears invested in the airplane, but you also understand that it’s time to move on,” said Ike Rettenmair, FRCE Fixed Wing Division director, whose Harrier experience dates back to his Marine Corps service. “There’s better technology out there with the F-35. It’s time, but it’s still kind of sad to see.”
Before the PMI-D inspection, the squadron disassembles the aircraft and turns it over to FRCE. Aviation maintenance professionals inspect the aircraft and repair the discrepancies they find, which accounts for about 5,300 hours of work, according to Rettenmair. After the PMI-D phase is complete, the aircraft enters the IMP assembly phase, during which FRCE artisans reassemble the aircraft, ground check it, and release it to the squadron for the aircraft’s functional check flight. FRCE is schedule to continue performing PMI-D inspections for the Marine Corps’ two remaining AV-8B squadrons through 2028.
For its final aircraft for VMA-542, the AV-8B line went the extra mile to impress the squadron. IMP assembly averages 127 days, but the squadron’s deployment date was quickly approaching. The line shaved 12 days from the assembly phase to deliver the aircraft in 115 days – just six days before the Marine Expeditionary Unit’s planned workup date.
“Everyone knew we had to meet the turnaround time for the fleet, trying to make the boat, and it gave the team a ‘we can do this’ mentality,” said Jeff Broughton, AV-8 planner and estimator at FRCE. “The whole team chipped in their full support to meet the squadron’s needs.”
“All of us know how valuable it is for the Marines to get the asset back,” agreed Rettenmair. “When they have a product coming right out of the depot to go on deployment, that’s less headache for the squadron, fewer worries, fewer issues with the airplane.”
The line’s physical proximity to MCAS Cherry Point’s Harrier squadrons has cemented FRCE’s already close relationship with the Marines it serves. The squadrons and maintainers are collocated in the same office spaces, which makes face-to-face communication a daily occurrence.
“The quality of the work and the level of detail, especially when I sit in on their meetings and hear the teams interact, have been outstanding,” said Maj. Robert Lien, Marine Aircraft Group-14 aircraft maintenance officer. “Their goal is to beat the timeline without sacrificing quality. It’s really good to see that not just their minds but their hearts are into the machine. It’s awesome to see how they care about the Marines on the flight line.”
FRCE is North Carolina’s largest maintenance, repair, overhaul, and technical services provider, with more than 4,000 civilian, military and contract workers. Its annual revenue exceeds $1 billion. The depot provides service to the fleet while functioning as an integral part of the greater U.S. Navy; Naval Air Systems Command; and Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers.