U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet Returns To Flight-After Being Grounded For 8 Years

U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet Returns To Flight-After Being Grounded For 8 Years
A U.S. flag in the cockpit of an FA-18F Super Hornet from the “Black Aces” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 41 during a break in support missions for Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Daniel Hilligrass/Released)

After more than eight years of dormancy on the flight line, F/A-18F Super Hornet Bureau Number (BuNo) 166464 returned to operational fleet service 19 April with a functional check flight.

Due largely in part to constrained Navy budgets, BuNo 166464, which had contributed some of its parts so that others could fly and deploy, sat idly on the Lemoore Flightline for nearly two presidential terms.  Some wondered if it would ever fly again.  Now the strike-fighter is back doing the job for which it was built, roaring through the California skies and helping train replacement aircrew as a member of the VFA-122 Flying Eagles.  The jet is not alone; several other “long-term downs” have also been returned into service as NAS Lemoore (NASL) is enjoying a readiness renaissance—more Super Hornets are flying now than seen in more than a decade.

A key player in this readiness recovery is a new maintenance center for excellence specifically designed to eliminate the long-term down aircraft.  In a small corner of NASL’s flight line sits a 73,800-square foot tension fabric structure.  Inside that air-conditioned makeshift hangar, maintainers expertly rebuild long-term down Super Hornets and ready them to be returned to fleet squadrons for operational use.   Six fully-equipped maintenance stations enable this massive undertaking, which has proved vital to maintaining operational readiness in today’s high op-tempo environment. 

Less than two years ago, Naval Aviation, and specifically the Strike Fighter (VFA) community faced a seemingly insurmountable problem.  Due to many years of heavy operational requirements, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets were breaking quicker than expected.  The supply system was stressed to the limits, and squadrons were forced to deal with long-term down aircraft that were consuming hangar space and man-hours.  In June of 2018, more than five fighter squadron’s worth of aircraft sat on the flight line at NAS Lemoore unable to fly, severely limiting aviation readiness and creating an increased burden on operational maintainers. 

Enter the Naval Aviation Maintenance Center for Excellence (NAMCE), Lemoore.   This Naval Aviation Enterprise initiative was established in July of 2018 as a detachment under Strike Fighter Wing, U.S. Pacific Fleet.  Its goal is simple:  to take long-term down aircraft, reconstitute them into flyable assets, and return them to the fleet.

Transferring long-term down aircraft to NAMCE relieves operational squadrons of the burden of maintaining them, allowing those squadrons to focus on accomplishing their mission.  Meanwhile, the highly-trained maintainers at NAMCE are ideal for the task of restoring those aircraft to mission capable (MC) status.  At its inception in the summer of 2018, NAMCE inducted 66 long-term down aircraft from the Lemoore flight line and set to work. 

The process of rebuilding an aircraft that has not flown in years is no simple task.   First, the aircraft are assessed to identify what level of work they need.  NAMCE doesn’t have the space to fix them all at once though.  According to Cmdr. Michael Windom, NAMCE’s Officer-in-Charge, Up to six aircraft at a time are in the process of being rebuilt, or ‘in the oven’ as I call it. The rest are given Level 2 preservation to prevent further issues while they wait in line.”

Each aircraft has its own unique requirements and challenges to overcome in order to be restored to flight status.  NAMCE maintainers strip the aircraft down during a detailed assessment process to ensure nothing is overlooked.  Because of the nature of long-term down aircraft, fuel cell leaks, environmental system issues, corrosion, and worn seals are often discovered in addition to the original maintenance concerns.  It is a painstaking process, but in NAMCE’s first year it returned 11 aircraft to the fleet, averaging 183 days per aircraft to rebuild.

In the summer of 2019, NAMCE, in conjunction with Boston Consulting Group, fully reassessed their processes and procedures.  Through some adjustments to the build flow, a remodeling of the production control center, the establishment of the parts control center, and an aggressive allocation of available skill sets, NAMCE has recently cut the average rebuild time down to 67 days. 

“This 300 percent increase in production has resulted in extraordinary cost savings and by the end of April, eight MC aircraft will have been returned to fleet squadrons under this expedited process,” Windom said. 

NAMCE’s efforts are already paying dividends.  Of the 66 aircraft initially inducted, 16 have been rebuilt and returned to service, and six more are in Cmdr. Windom’s “oven” awaiting work.  As Capt. James Bates, Commodore Strike Fighter Wing, U.S. Pacific Fleet said, “In less than two years NAMCE has gone from a concept to the successful reconstitution of over 15 long-term down F/A-18 Super Hornets, enabling the Naval Aviation Enterprise to achieve and sustain the SECDEF-mandated Mission Capable (MC) rate for the Super Hornet.  This was truly a team effort across all stakeholders as everyone aggressively leaned in to turn the NAMCE vision into a reality.”

Commodore Bates added that the acceptance of the long-term down (LTD) aircraft enhanced the abilities of both VFA-122, the F/A-18 E/F Fleet Replacement Squadron (which had dozens of long-term downs) as well as Lemoore’s depot, Fleet Readiness Center West (FRC-W) to help produce more MC jets.

“The successful execution of NAMCE’s mission—returning LTD aircraft to the flight line–allows VFA-122 to focus on training enlisted maintainers and the production of replacement aircrew and FRC-W to focus on aircraft PMIs in support of flight line readiness,” Bates said.

Although NAMCE’s task is far from complete, the more efficient processes in place will enable the remaining aircraft to be returned to service ahead of schedule.  NAMCE’s unprecedented success is a testament to the Sailors and maintainers assigned.  The skies around Lemoore are buzzing with more flyable jets, and it is due in part to the unsung heroes at NAMCE, who one-by-one are reducing the numbers of long-term-down Super Hornets and getting them back into the fight.

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