ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
A year ago this month, plans were in the works to take on an ambitious workload that would cement an exciting partnership between Air Force Special Operations Command and the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex.
The plan: In fiscal 2016 perform programmed depot maintenance on six aircraft – three AC-130U gunships and three MC-130H Combat Talons – in what would become an aggressive C-130 AFSOC Acceleration Plan.
It’s a textbook case of how critical it is in our current global environment to return high-demand aircraft to the warfighter as quickly as possible. Increased aircraft availability means every single aircraft counts.
These gunships and Combat Talons are heavily flown, they’re getting beat up and Robins is playing a vital role in fixing them as quickly and efficiently as possible, returning them to where and when they’re needed.
To date, three aircraft have departed Robins, two gunships and a Combat Talon.
The first aircraft, an AC-130U, flew back to Hurlburt Field, Florida, last February. It was produced at a record-pace of 100 days, 83 days ahead of AFSOC’s requirement.
According to AFSOC’s 1st Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, since that first accelerated gunship returned to Hurlburt Field, it has flown 36 sorties for 121 hours.
Special operations squadrons have used the aircraft for training to ensure crew members stay qualified and proficient in the gunship, as well as qualified in various aspects of flight prior to deployment. It’s also used by their schoolhouse for program flying training to train the newest AC-130U crew members.
This past May the aircraft was part of the air show at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, and is currently wrapping up a six-day, off-station trainer providing a squadron additional PFT lines. It also underwent a LAIRCM, or large aircraft infrared countermeasures, system upgrade this summer which provides air crews better defense capabilities.
Future plans are to include a SAMS ESA modification, an upgrade specifically focused on fully integrating electronic warfare systems onboard the aircraft.
Returning an aircraft earlier than scheduled can directly impact how quickly it can be used, whether it’s for home station training purposes or somewhere downrange.
With three aircraft already returned to AFSOC, two additional aircraft are currently on station, a second Combat Talon and a third gunship.
Continuous process improvements in the 560th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron’s C-130 AFSOC Acceleration Flight help to ensure these aircraft can be returned in a timely manner.
One area the team is focusing on is the avionics checks at functional test, the final phase after induction, preparation, conversion and build-up. Troubleshooting avionics issues during the last phase can delay the process since mechanics must then go back to figure out where problems are.
One CPI effort is working closely with system program office engineers and avionics technicians to troubleshoot issues much earlier. Partnering with the 402nd Electronics Maintenance Group for bench testing with avionics components has allowed mechanics to find a faulty wire more quickly, for example, rather than when an aircraft has already been built up and ready to test fly.
Avionics technicians have been placed directly within a maintenance dock where 40 operational checks are performed. By resolving these ahead of time before the plane is de-docked is resulting in an 80 percent reduction on those checks compared to the past. Bottom line, identifying and resolving issues earlier increases speed throughout the remainder of the maintenance process.
Items are being routed about 20 days earlier to the 402nd EMXG, with that number expected to grow in the future. That CPI effort is again being used with the current Combat Talon at Robins, which revealed a bad connection, something which may seem minor, but can save major headaches when discovered at the end of the production line.
“This is enabling us to get better,” said Jake Dickson, a mechanical engineer and C-130 AFSOC Acceleration flight chief.
The flight has also become very proficient in its foam removal efforts as well. On the first aircraft it took three shifts with 10 people; the last one took two shifts with eight people. It’s a significant move as this is weekend work and can make a big difference during production schedules.
Blurring the lines; flow day requirements
With the workload halfway accomplished, the world-class enterprise team at Robins – which includes partners from the Defense Logistics Agency, 402nd Commodities Maintenance Group, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center System Program Office and many others is successfully working toward driving down production flow days even further.
The third and most recent aircraft to depart Robins this past July, was a gunship that left six days ahead of the customer requirement. It’s agreed it was cutting it a bit close, but it was decided Robins would further work an issue that had been plaguing the aircraft’s APQ-180 radar system the past three years.
“We’re blurring that line with home station and that’s exactly what we want to do,” added Dickson. “We kept it here at Robins so we can give them the best product that we can deliver.”
From 183 days, future gunships will have a 122 flow day requirement. Those however don’t have as many required maintenance hours as the Combat Talon, which will require 133 future flow days, down from a 233 day requirement. Outer wing swaps carry an additional 30 days at 163 days.
The final one to arrive this fiscal year will be inducted in September, and will be an enormous undertaking as this Combat Talon will not only receive an outer wing swap, but require extensive maintenance as a result of significant hail damage.
“This aircraft will have the most hours on it of anything we’ve worked to date,” said Dickson. “It is nice we’ve had five aircraft to become proficient on before our sixth, final and most labor-intensive aircraft arrives.”
Business as usual
With several high-profile visits this fiscal year from AFSOC senior leaders, it’s been a whirlwind of activity since the first aircraft arrived from Florida. Now a year later, with lessons learned, it’s just another routine day at the office.
“Since we’ve done two Talons and three gunships now, we feel comfortable with this workload and proficient in our maintenance,” Dickson said. “It’s surreal to think back and realize we’ve been here for a year. We’ve had to work with so many people to make this happen, and now it’s become the norm. In the beginning it was this grand experiment and now it’s just steady state – this is how we operate now.”