Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE) has expanded its support of next-generation naval aviation by declaring capabilities on a new round of F-35 components. These capabilities build upon the 17 F-35 components the depot previously declared capabilities on in 2020.
“This expansion of our F-35 component workload is extremely important because the F-35 is a not just a unique platform, it’s the future of naval aviation,” said FRCE Commanding Officer Capt. James Belmont. “The F-35 component work will be a vital part of the depot’s workload as we move forward into the future. It will bring continued growth and I believe it will have a positive economic impact on the local community.”
FRCE is the lead site for depot-level maintenance on the F-35B Lightning II and has conducted modifications and repair on the Marine Corps’ short takeoff-vertical landing variant of the aircraft since 2013. The facility has also worked with the F-35A (conventional takeoff and landing) and F-35C (carrier) variants.
FRCE declared capability on its first F-35 component in 2020. By the close of 2020, the depot had declared capability on 17 components for the fifth-generation fighter. Mike Mishoe, FRCE F-35 Lightning II depot activation lead, says that was just the start of an initiative aimed at declaring capabilities on a range of F-35 components, all geared toward supporting the warfighter.
“Since then, we have declared capability on parachutes and the ground maintenance motor pumps,” said Mishoe. “Although all of these components are important, of note are the parachutes. The aircraft can’t be flown without them. We are working with the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to produce as many as we can and as quickly as we can. Providing these parachutes, as well as all the other components, allows the pilots to keep training, supporting operations, and conducting real-world missions.”
In addition to supporting fleet requirements and mission readiness, the new F-35 component work provides FRCE with a scheduled workload going forward, Mishoe said.
“We continue to stand up capability on a quarterly basis,” said Mishoe. “We currently have F-35 component workload scheduled through at least 2026, and we continue to pursue bringing in additional workload.”
Mike Sermarini, FRCE’s former F-35 Lightning II depot activation lead, has championed most of these initial efforts along with his team. Sermarini, who recently transferred to another assignment within Naval Air Systems Command, said the depot is already working toward declaring capabilities on an ever-expanding range of F-35 components.
“FRCE is working on 84 different end items,” said Sermarini. “They’ve stood up initial repair capability for 19 components and they’ve developed and managed successful partnerships in support of the workload. They recently declared capability on parachutes and the ground maintenance motor pump. The capability team and depot were working hard and anticipating declaration for engine-driven pump and filter modules within the coming weeks.”
While the term “declaring capability” sounds simple, the actual process is complex. According to Mishoe, it involves intensive collaboration both within the depot as well as outside it.
“When FRCE declares capability on a component, that means that we have all the required materiel, support equipment, and staffing in order to test and repair components so they may be sent back to the fleet to be installed on F-35s around the world,” said Mishoe. “In order for this to happen, we must collaborate not only within our own workforce at the depot but also with entities outside of FRCE such as Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers along with the F-35 Joint Program Office, OEMs, and others.”
The process of declaring capability on a component begins years before the component ever arrives at the depot and involves a team of experts. This team must consider a variety of factors such as current and future workloads, manpower requirements, facility and tooling needs, and supply support. Engineers must analyze vast amounts of technical data. Mishoe says it takes critical thinking, expertise and commitment to make it all happen.
“To declare capability on a component, we have a team of people from across our workforce all working hand-in-hand,” Mishoe said. “We really strive to make sure we have the right people in place and ensure that they are properly trained and equipped. Everyone here understands the process and just how important these components and capabilities are to the workforce and the fleet. Their motivation astounds me. Without them, none of this would be possible.”
In addition to having the right people working together, standing up new component capabilities also means ensuring those people have the facilities, gear and training necessary for the project. Sermarini explains that each component brings with it a unique set of requirements.
“Our efforts are not limited to simply training the artisans on the required maintenance tasks,” said Sermarini. “Our team must ensure a logistically supportable and validated repair solution. This means the facilities, infrastructure, technical data, technical expertise, supporting hardware and software must all be in place to meet the forecasted demand.”
Sermarini says the COVID-19 pandemic has also presented a unique set of challenges as the depot worked to stand up capabilities.
“The past year and a half has been very challenging due to COVID-19,” said Sermarini. “Due to travel restrictions and personnel requirements, all of our major milestones are basically overlapping – which is certainly not something you want in the project management world – but here we are today, and we’re pushing through to get all these systems activated.”
Sermarini cites the men and women who work at FRCE as the key factor in overcoming COVID-related obstacles and tight timelines.
“We recognize growing our F-35 repair capability requires an all-hands-on-deck approach,” said Sermarini. “With the support of our command, we’ve been extremely successful in generating the excitement and buy-in amongst the staff that’s crucial to achieving our objectives. We’re asking a lot of our workforce and – as always – they’ve come through.”
The F-35 component workload, while important to the future of FRCE, also yields positive impacts that go far beyond the boundaries of the depot. According to Sermarini, these component capabilities benefit warfighters and contribute to mission readiness throughout the Department of Defense.
“FRC East is not solely standing up repair capability for the Marine Corps variant,” said Sermarini. “We are establishing component repair capabilities for all F-35 variants in support of both our local warfighters as well as the global enterprise.”
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.