Magazine article National Defense

From the Boneyard to the Fleet

Magazine article National Defense

From the Boneyard to the Fleet

Article excerpt

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - As the Navy and Marine Corps face dire readiness challenges in their tactical aviation fleets, Boeing is stepping up to add capabilities and longevity to older F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets.

More than 60 percent of the aircraft in the F/A-18 fleets are not flyable in their current state, said Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Moran.

"We're double where we should be in non-flyable aircraft," he said at a Senate Armed Services Committee readiness and management support subcommittee hearing in February.

The readiness challenges are being driven by high operating tempos and related maintenance backlogs; insufficient procurement of new aircraft; and delays in the F-35 joint strike fighter coming online. Navy depot capacity has also been diminished since sequestration hit in 2013, he noted.

Boeing is working to tackle the problem. The company is on contract to bring 22 legacy F/A-18C Hornets out of a U.S. military "boneyard" in the Arizona desert, and reconstitute and upgrade them so that they can rejoin the Marine Corps fleet. The effort is known as the "C+ program."

When the U.S. military shrank in the years after the Cold War, a number of Hornets were mothballed at a storage facility at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona.

Bill Maxwell, a former Marine aviator who now serves as Boeing's senior manager of F/A-18 operations, had to fly one of the planes out to the boneyard where he expected it to "rot in the desert" indefinitely.

"It was a sad deal," he said. "I thought that I would never see these jets fly again. ... [But] we're bringing them out of the desert now and bringing these warfighting machines that still have life left in them to put them back out and hand them to a warfighter."

The C+ work is being performed at Boeing's Cecil Field facilities in Jacksonville, Florida. During an exclusive tour of the facilities, Maxwell showed National Defense the first reconstituted aircraft from the boneyard.

"This came in a year ago on a flat bed truck and right now it's really close to a flyable state," he said. "We're going to take it over to the other hangar here in the weeks ahead and then we're going to do the upgrade" to make the aircraft more capable than the standard C-variant.

It required two flat beds to transport it from Arizona. One carried the fuselage and the other moved the wings and the other components. When they arrived at Cecil Field, the equipment was unloaded with a crane and then rolled into one of the hangars for Boeing technicians to work on.

"We pull everything apart," Maxwell said. "We gut it and then we take a look at all these little points. . We get in there and make sure all the fatigues, the cracks, the corrosions are all good to go. Then we replace all the old equipment that was in there. You have actuators for the hydraulic systems that are old and decayed. We pull those out and put new ones in."

Once the necessary fixes are made, the technicians then put the aircraft back together. After the fighter has been reconstituted, the plane is taken to another hangar for the C+ upgrade.

"Once it comes in here then we'll do the tear down," said Brian Aheam, a senior avionics technician at Boeing. "If it's an electrical mod we start taking out all the old wiring and install all the new wiring. . With the structural mod we'll take out the old parts that need to come out and then drill up for all the new hardware" that will be added to the aircraft.

For most of the Hornets, the reconstitution process is expected to last about a year. The C+ upgrade should take an additional six months or so, Maxwell said.

But Boeing believes it can shave three months off that timeline if it is authorized to do the reconstitution and upgrade efforts concurrently.

"Why bother to put it all back together [first] . and then bring it back and tear them all down and put the new mod in? It just didn't make any sense," said Wayne Haight, Boeing's C+ lead. …

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