A Vietnam-era aircraft platform facing a challenging supply posture seems an unlikely candidate for an underdog victory story.
But that’s just what happened when Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE) artisans made a hard push to the finish line to complete and return to the fleet two H-53 heavy-lift helicopters – each having seen various stages of work stoppage during their repair at the depot – before the end of fiscal year 2021. With a cross-disciplinary group of support entities behind them, the team finished the job just under the wire, delivering the first aircraft Sept. 29 and the second Sept. 30.
Those two aircraft helped FRCE’s Rotary Wing Division meet its goal of delivering 43 completed Planned Maintenance Interval (PMI) events in fiscal year 2021. The division includes the H-53 line, along with the UH-1N line and the V-22 production line at FRCE and its remote sites at the North Carolina Global TransPark in Kinston; Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina; and Hurlburt Field in Florida.
“Having the H-53 line push hard to the end helped fill a critical need for H-53 aircraft within the fleet,” said FRCE Commanding Officer Col. Thomas A. Atkinson. “This effort is a great example of the skill and dedication shared by our entire team at FRC East. I couldn’t be more proud of the workforce and their continual efforts to provide the highest level of service to the fleet.”
The H-53E is a sundowning aircraft, said David Williams, director of FRCE’s Rotary Wing Division, which means it is nearing the end of its life cycle within the fleet as its planned replacement, the new CH-53K King Stallion, completes testing and evaluation. This status can make it difficult for FRCE’s partners in Naval Supply Systems Command and Defense Logistics Agency to source the components needed to maintain and repair the aircraft. The only way to overcome these issues is to work cooperatively with internal and external partners to develop innovative solutions.
Often, the H-53 production line at FRCE has to work with engineering and manufacturing programs within the depot to produce a one-off part or develop a new procedure for a repair process that hasn’t been conducted before, Williams noted.
“The H-53 team faces hurdles that no other line faces simply because of the age of the aircraft, and I’m very proud of the team,” he explained. “I can’t say enough about the support we receive from manufacturing and engineering to resolve issues that have never been seen before. Every time we had a barrier, the team collectively resolved those issues and we kept moving forward. It truly is a team effort across the plant.”
Material constraints led to work stoppages on both helicopters earlier during the fiscal year, and unplanned work – maintenance requirements discovered after the aircraft arrived at FRCE, in addition to the work previously scheduled – had leaders believing the aircraft wouldn’t be completed until sometime in fiscal year 2022, said David Thorpe, H-53 branch head at FRCE.
“It’s an uphill battle with every aircraft, but our team never lost faith in their ability to get the job done” he said.
Williams agreed the team’s perseverance made all the difference.
“They felt confident that they could bring the schedule back on time and meet the challenge to finish both aircraft before the end of the fiscal year,” he said. “We didn’t want to look for excuses; we just wanted to look for how we could seize on what opportunities we had.”
The team used strategic schedule loading and worked an effective execution plan developed by the team’s supervisors, work leads, aircraft evaluators and quality assurance specialists, Williams said, which allowed each employee to know what the requirements are for meeting the completion goal by setting out measurable and achievable goals along the way. This ambitious but realistic plan set the team up for success, and an innovative solution to a supply constraint helped seal the deal.
While disassembling H-53 aircraft, FRCE’s mechanics and evaluators have recently been finding more and more damage and corrosion on T caps and substructure fittings, which make up the aircraft’s lower bilge frames underneath the cabin floorboards. The T cap is vital to the structure of the aircraft for load-bearing purposes, Thorpe said; without it, the aircraft can’t be cleared for operation.
FRCE’s manufacturing shop produced new T caps based on original specifications, but during removal of the old T cap on one aircraft, unserviceable fittings in the substructure were found. With a long lead-time to procure material and manufacture these parts, the team needed a new solution if they were going to have any chance to make the fiscal year deadline.
“We ended up going out to the boneyard, where we have some old 53’s sitting out there, and the guys pulled this particular fitting off four different aircraft that were available,” Thorpe said. “With some engineering guidance and instruction, we were able to get the fitting that was closest to the original to the machinist, who was able to upsize and bush the fitting to make it work. The solution was rigorously tested and approved, and the team was able to save the day. Without that thinking outside the box, the aircraft never would have made completion prior to the end of the fiscal year.
“We’ve got the talent to do the job. We’ve got a great engineering group, and we’ve got good support. Work-arounds and small miracles seem to happen here all the time,” Thorpe continued. “It’s hard work, but these little victories against the odds make it gratifying.”
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.