Loaded with Aging Planes, Air Force Gears Up for Surge in Repair Work

By Erwin, Sandra I. | National Defense, August 2006 | Go to article overview
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Loaded with Aging Planes, Air Force Gears Up for Surge in Repair Work


Erwin, Sandra I., National Defense


Despite strict mandates to cut thousands of jobs, the Air Force Materiel Command has ambitious plans to modernize its maintenance depots and become less dependent on contractors to repair and upgrade aircraft.

Gen. Bruce Carlson, AFMC commander, says the work at the depots will rise dramatically during the next decade as a result of the service's aging fleet.

"We're planning for a significant workload increase," Carlson told reporters.

AFMC, which is based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, operates three major depots: Ogden Air Logistics Center, in Utah; Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center; and Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, in Georgia.

Overhauls to the KC-135 tanker aircraft alone will drive most of the growth in depot work, said Carlson.

The uncertainty surrounding the purchase of a new tanker means the current fleet will need to be kept in service for at least 25 more years. The current tankers will be rewired, receive new hydraulic lines, spars, support structures and landing gears.

Besides the tanker, other aircraft also will require substantial refurbishments. The F-15C and F-15D fighters will need new avionics in order to extend their service lives by 15 years.

The A-10 ground-attack aircraft will continue to demand repairs as more of the aircraft are deployed in combat. The five-decade old B-52 bomber will stay around for 30 more years.

The surge in depot work reflects the fact that the Air Force is keeping aircraft in service much longer than it ever planned, Carlson said. "Five years ago, when an aircraft came into the depot, the thinking was that it needed to last five more years. Now, as the airplane comes in, the theory is that we have to make it last 15 to 20 more years."

AFMC is seeking $150 million a year, beginning in fiscal 2008, to modernize the depots and equip them with the necessary tools, machinery and software.

Carlson said he is confident the funds will be approved, but he sounded less optimistic about the long-term availability of skilled workers. AFMC employs 80,000 people--70 percent civilians. Although it will be losing 3,000 military and 720 civilian employees during the next year, it continues to hire several hundred engineers and expert mechanics each year. "Working with metal is not just technical knowledge. There's skill and artistry," said Carlson. "We're still hiring even when we are drawing down."

The cutbacks will be achieved via voluntary retirements and, if necessary, layoffs. The 720 civilians must be taken off the payroll by October 1, or AFMC will be stuck with a $154 million bill that it cannot afford to pay. The 3,000 military jobs will be eliminated by the end of fiscal 2007.

The seasoned craftsmen Carlson wants to retain, however, will be deterred from taking the voluntary retirement offer. "The secret is offering it to the right people, so we don't lose critical skills."

To further strengthen the depots, Carlson also wants to ensure that the Air Force gets full intellectual property rights to the engineering drawings and designs of any weapon systems purchased from a contractor. Often that has not been the case in the past, because the Air Force in many instances chose to let the contractor retain the rights to the technical data, in exchange for a lower price for the hardware.

That may save money in the near term, but ultimately costs the Air Force untold billions of dollars that it has to pay to contractors to repair and maintain aircraft, Carlson explained.

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