The saying “you can’t fly without supply” has never been more accurate. Combined with the substantial challenge of balancing maintenance and operational needs against limited hangar and flight-deck space and a reduced number of helicopters on the aircraft carrier, the ability to keep the MH-60S Seahawk search-and-rescue aircraft in an “up” status is much more difficult today than in the past. If the Navy’s goal is having the maximum percentage possible of ready, deployable, and sustainable assets, it should take a hard look at current processes from a supply and readiness standpoint.
The ready-for-issue (RFI) parts stock needs to be at the top of the priority list, and it must be available before the first day of the basic (beginning) phase of the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (the deployment readiness cycle) to ensure timely maintenance that enables consistent flight operations.
In the past three fiscal years, significantly reduced fourth quarter budgets have hurt end-of-year supply stock to the point that it takes weeks or months to replenish. Shortages contribute to increased aircraft downtime and the cannibalization of parts from other aircraft. For example, to prepare aircraft for a mission, my squadron occasionally reused parts that we would not normally have considered reusing, such as tail landing gear forks. Such supply issues, combined with the inherent challenges of performing helicopter maintenance afloat, generate unnecessary risk.
Lack of RFI stock also causes overuse of flyable assets. On our most recent deployment, a phase inspection kept an aircraft out of flight status for 48 days because some parts were unavailable and there was a lack of hangar and carrier deck space. That delay required a 30-day no-fly functional check flight (FCF), adding more flight requirements before we could return the aircraft to operational flight status.
Today’s HSC Reality
In the best of circumstances, a deployed helicopter sea combat (HSC) squadron is challenged to complete helicopter maintenance and FCFs on an aircraft carrier. Recently, HSC-6 underwent a reduction from eight to five MH-60S helicopters as part of naval aviation’s “Air Wing of the Future” restructuring. An HSC squadron’s primary mission on the aircraft carrier is search and rescue, known as flying “plane guard.” A standard plane-guard mission is approximately 13 hours of flight time, which means each MH-60S can manage roughly 15 flight-days of plane guard before it requires a phase inspection—something that happens after every 200 hours of flight time. In addition to flying plane guard and normal unit-level training, HSC squadrons are tasked with logistics transport, vertical replenishment, and medical evacuations. These additional missions can add 20 to 40 percent more flight hours per deployment. Unfortunately, the aircraft carrier plane-guard requirements dictated by Commander, Naval Air Forces, have not been adjusted to reflect the lower number of available aircraft.
There are approximately 1,000 hours of total flight time for all five embarked MH-60S aircraft, or roughly 75 days of plane-guard duty, before all aircraft would require a phase inspection. Put another way, subtracting flight hours for the other duties, this means as a practical matter each aircraft can sustain about 5 to 10 days of plane-guard duty before requiring a phase inspection. Ashore, a phase inspection normally takes between 7 and 10 days and can be managed so there are always aircraft available to meet operational tasking or training needs. However, it often takes much longer to complete a phase inspection afloat because of limited parts availability, slower parts delivery, and the availability of hangar and flight-deck space to perform specific phase maintenance tasks.
During the 48-day period that our aircraft waited for parts, HSC-6 completed 479 flight hours, nearly half the total flight hours scheduled, and two of the remaining four aircraft entered their phase maintenance window. The 48-day delay caused HSC-6 to put more than 100 hours on two airframes in one month, nearly three times the recommended monthly usage (Naval Air Forces recommends no more than 38 hours per month for an MH-60S). Further, it left the squadron with only two of five aircraft to manage alert and plane-guard requirements, leaving no room for unplanned aircraft problems. Per the Naval Aviation Maintenance Program guidance, HSC-6 authorized a 10 percent deviation for these phase inspections. However, HSC-6 still had less than 68 flyable hours with two aircraft, or roughly five plane-guard fly days.
This jeopardizes not only operational capability but also safety. The additional pressure placed on the maintenance department to keep the remaining two aircraft flying results in some routine maintenance being deferred. In the maintenance world, this is called “touch time” with the aircraft—time used for regular inspections and noncritical maintenance essential to the long-term health of the fleet. Deferring minor maintenance often causes more significant problems down the road (e.g., corrosion). Furthermore, the pressure to get aircraft back in the air or keep them flying can tempt maintainers to cut corners with nonstandard maintenance practices that create unnecessary hazards.
Predictive Analysis and Better Scheduling
Overcoming these challenges begins with having the right supplies before deployment to reduce time to complete maintenance. The HSC predeployment aviation consolidated allowance list review is meant to identify the necessary parts, but the shortage of parts across the Navy reduces deployed inventory and on-hand allowance. Supply inventory sizes are based on the aggregate experiences of maintenance professionals in the community, and maintenance databases containing only two years of data. The Navy must transition beyond this manual and anecdotal method to a system that employs predictive stock analysis based on empirical data. At a minimum, Navy type wings should analyze thousands of line items worth of data to accurately calculate the necessary predeployment aircraft parts inventory. This is even more urgent because the long-established supply chain used for Navy forces in the Fifth Fleet area of responsibility must be revised for the Navy’s new primary operating areas in the western Pacific.
Space in the hangar bay or on the flight deck is often required to perform specific HSC maintenance functions that must be completed on time. With eight carrier air wing squadrons fighting for the same space, air wings continue to look for the best methods to allocate this highly coveted space.
FCFs are one of the most time-consuming requirements after phase inspections and other types of major maintenance. For this reason, they are not conducted during regular flight operations and must wait until late at night, early in the morning, or during scheduled “no-fly” days. The same aircraft that experienced the 48-day maintenance delay then took 14 days to complete its FCF (a process that ordinarily takes two to three days ashore).
The carrier air wing and aircraft carrier leaders (commanding officer, operations officer, air boss, and aircraft handler) should develop a standard operating procedure for flight deck prioritization based on each squadron’s availability and importance to the highest priority strike group missions. The process I recently experienced involved expending a lot of energy only to discover that much effort was wasted for little to no gain. Also, squadrons should understand that maintenance opportunities cannot be squandered once they become available. Squadron maintenance teams must always be ready.
As the HSC squadron is the designated search-and-rescue squadron for an embarked air wing, nothing flies unless the HSC aircraft are flying. With fewer aircraft in HSC squadrons, a lack of RFI stock parts and high cannibalization rates, and limited access to hangars and the flight deck, the historical way of doing maintenance no longer suffices. Smarter maintenance timing based on predictive analysis and more collaborative and creative flight-deck and hangar scheduling will help the HSC community better meet the fleet’s demands in the future.