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Air Force searches for Band-Aids to keep aging planes airworthy

Oct. 29, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Reserve Tech Sgt. James Keogh sits in front of a KC-135's F108 engine in a hangar where the aircraft has been for 30 days for extended maintenance.
Reserve Tech Sgt. James Keogh sits in front of a KC-135's F108 engine in a hangar where the aircraft has been for 30 days for extended maintenance. (Rob Curtis/Staff)
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When Tech Sgt. Eric Balest joined the Air Force 15 years ago, he typically worked eight- to nine-hour shifts on F-15C/D Eagles.

Now, the wing avionics manager with the 4th Maintenance Group at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., focuses on the F-15E Strike Eagle, a fighter with a high operational tempo, regular deployments and an average age exceeding 21 years. And that means more work fixing whatever breaks.

“Throughout the past five to seven years, [the workload] has increased dramatically,” Balest said. “It’s not uncommon to work an 11- to 12-hour shift, including weekends.”

The Air Force’s fleet of 5,476 aircraft is old and beaten down after years of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas under Central Command. The average age is just more than 26 years old. Each of these aging aircraft faces an increasing maintenance workload, with almost 9 percent of the entire fleet seeing depot maintenance in fiscal 2013.

“We are currently smaller and older than ever before,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told Congress last month. “The mainstays of our bomber and air refueling fleets are both from the Eisenhower era,” a reference to the B-52 Stratofortress and KC-135 Stratotanker.

“For anything mechanical, it’s not a matter of if it breaks, it’s a matter of when,” says Staff Sgt. Beau Turnipseed, a dedicated crew chief in Balest’s group. “And as things get older they break more frequently.”

Air Force leaders and maintenance crews in interviews with Air Force Times identified a number of steps they are taking to address the problems — including increasing work hours, adding training, awarding contracts to upgrade parts, streamlining procedures and operations, and addressing morale.

But the pain will get worse before it gets better. With continued sequestration, the Air Force is looking at possibly cutting more than 25,000 people and more than 550 aircraft through 2019, and possibly delaying new aircraft, such as the F-35 and KC-46A tanker. Long hours and increasing problems with aging aircraft will continue unless some cuts are reversed.

“We deferred critical maintenance on our aging platforms in order to make sure that we could pay the bills,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Moeller, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs, at an Oct. 23 House Armed Services Committee hearing. “From an Air Force perspective, we were not ready in ’13. [Delayed maintenance] drives readiness degradation into ’14 and under sequestration, we will not recover our readiness so that we’re ready to fight tonight.”

“Depot delays will also result in the grounding of some affected aircraft,” Welsh and former Air Force secretary Michael Donley warned Congress at the beginning of sequestration last spring. “The deferments mean idled production shops, a degradation of workforce proficiency and productivity, and corresponding future volatility and operational costs. It can take two-to-three years to recover full restoration of depot workforce productivity and proficiency.”

Maintenance airmen’s rate of fixing aircraft within 12 hours has dropped to 52 percent, down from 53.4 percent in fiscal 2012. On top of that, civilian depot workers have faced furloughs, both from sequestration and the government shutdown, and that has caused fiscal uncertainty at work and in their personal lives.

Longer hours for airmen

For maintainers, there’s no better feeling than to get their plane in the air and for it to come back safely after a mission. “That gives us a high, gives us the ability to make everything worth it in the long run,” Balest said.

Maintenance crews work the long hours together and deal with the same stressors, which forges a bond, Turnipseed said. Everybody knows what the others are going through. It’s still a job though, and anyone would be affected by long hours under intense conditions.

To counteract that, leaders in maintenance groups work to keep morale up through positive reinforcement, and group activities during downtime, said Staff Sgt. Christopher Gregory, an aircraft structural maintenance craftsman with the 4th Equipment Maintenance Squadron.

The issues are felt across the service, both in active duty and reserve components and across major commands.

The Reserve 459th Air Refueling Wing at Joint Base Andrews, Md., is a smaller group, with just eight KC-135Rs. Tech Sgt. James Keogh, an aerospace propulsion technician with the 459th Maintenance Group, said he sees the same stress, with long hours and increased maintenance, but in a smaller group without active-duty help.

Maintainers work 12-hour shifts regularly, with Keogh himself saying he has recently worked 12 hours every day for a week to fix the Stratotankers.

KC-135R maintainers across the force have been able to keep an 80.3 percent mission-capable rate. In a perfect world, however, Keogh would want more hands on deck to keep the planes in the air.

“I think we do a pretty good job with the people that we have. Everybody cares and wants to do a good job, but when it comes down to it, we need more assets,” he said.

Delays, uncertainty in depots

Furloughs of civilian workers because of the sequester last summer hurt the health of the fleet. At Air Force Materiel Command, where 57 percent of the workforce is civilian, 1.4 million production hours were lostat three AFMC depots, Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger, AFMC commander, said in September. It will take until the second quarter of 2014 to make up the work.

“We are very good at maintaining legacy aircraft,” Wolfenbarger said at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference. “We, along with our industry partners, can continue to maintain these systems for the length of time our nation demands. But, I have to tell you, they are not necessarily up to the threats that are evolving.”

The furloughs and work stoppages, followed by the shutdown when many were not paid in full, also hurt civilian depot workers personally.

“This is very stressful on employees,” said Troy Tingey, president of the American Federation of Government Employees AFMC Council. “They are working from day to day and not knowing what their future will be. They have lost stability and trust in the government.”

The government shutdown, which ended Oct. 17, slowed work flow and delayed returning aircraft to the fleet, Tingey said. The loss of six furlough days is the same as losing 925,000 production hours if overtime is not reinstated at air logistics complexes.

The government shutdown directly caused the late delivery of 130 aircraft from depot maintenance, and overall workflow days are increased by 138 days to catch up with lost time, Tingey said. There are 198 aircraft currently in the Air Force’s three depots, according to AFMC.

“These are not insignificant as at least part of this work will be added to the [fiscal] 2014 workload, which could also be subject to the uncertainty of sequester,” Tingey said.

Before the furloughs, the command had been able to make improvements over the past year. Back orders had dropped 21 percent. Depot work stoppages were down 18 percent. And critical parts shortages were down 25 percent. If these improvements were sustained, it would mean more planes available for aircrews. AFMC did not have updated information accounting for the effect of furloughs and government shutdown on those improvements.

Wolfenbarger said her projections for AFMCare contingent on not having additional furloughs or work stoppages in 2014. While the continuing resolution passed Oct. 16 will keep the government open through January, the possibility of another shutdown remains. Continued work stoppages would continue to hurt readiness, Air Force leaders have said.

Moving forward, AFMC has taken steps to streamline operations and cut overhead. Last year, the Air Force consolidated operations at three depots into the Air Force Sustainment Center at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. Management of the three depots — Hill Air Force Base, Utah; Robins Air Force Base, Ga.; and Tinker — is handled at the center.

Next: Upgrades for fighters

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