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. 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.
“Having the H-53 line push hard to the end helped fill a critical need for H-53 aircraft within the fleet. 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-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. I can’t say enough about the support we receive from manufacturing and engineering to resolve issues that have never been seen before.,” said FRCE Commanding Officer Col. Thomas A. Atkinson.
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.
The team used strategic schedule worked an effective execution plan developed by the team’s supervisors, work leads, aircraft evaluators and quality assurance specialists 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.
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. 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.