One of the more fascinating aspects of my employment within the largest military organization on Earth is the occasional opportunity to peak behind the scenes at the infrastructure that maintains the US Navy and Marine Corp capabilities. Due to a recent assignment to attend a training event held at the Navy’s Coronado, California, I had the chance to learn about a limited facet of Fleet support … The aircraft repair and refurbishment facilities at Fleet Readiness Center (FRC) Southwest (commonly referred to as FRC San Diego or North Island).
Note: Nothing discussed here would be considered clearance-required information. The only access granted was perhaps a step above common base access permitted for normal, non-clearance business operations. No photographs were allowed or taken.
Our visit was arranged by my supervisors (NAVSUP Weapon Systems Support) through comparable supervision at the FRC for six visitors, including myself. Our focus was the maintenance of aircraft repairable assemblies, although our organization also deals heavily with shipboard systems.
As we drove to our pre-tour meet ‘n greet, we caught glimpses of the work going on. The most interesting was a hanger area full of older version F/A-18s going through tear downs we learned would lead to de-militarization of the aircraft and disposal through approved de-mil processes. One aircraft – which I think I saw – was a fanciful aircraft in unique painting purportedly used in the remake of Top Gun (i.e. Top Gun 2), serving as Maverick’s (Tom Cruise) ride!
Since the DoD frowns on old components finding their way onto Amazon and e-Bay. Most components are scrapped following the harvest of any special metals used in their original manufacture.
What strikes even the most experienced civilian desk jockey is the lengths in maintenance management, repair and refurbishment, quality artisanship, and exacting process the military services expend in maximizing the service longevity of its aircraft fleet! No small order when one gets the opportunity to see it first hand and dwells on the infinite amount of detail required to make those exacting processes flow.
Of course with operations so involved, so broad in scope, conducted both CONUS (contiguous U.S.) and OCONUS (outside CONUS), across large complex military facilities, not everything is perfect. Flaws develop in handling and processes; material get waylaid, mismanaged, lost; and facilities become disorganized and unimaginably cluttered.
But again, the Services (in my experience The Navy) have adapted to become more reactive and corrective in ensuring the most efficient and effective industrial facilities are available to support the War Fighter. FRC Southwest, for example, recently endured a reorganization and reinvention of its industrial facilities after an audit by a private consultant found much lacking in the efficacy of its operations.
I had been to several commercial defense facilities in my Navy aircraft support experience (e.g. McDonnell-Douglas, Sikorsky). But I had never seen a facility as clean, well-defined, exacting, and organized as the repair and refurbishment operations at FRC Southwest! Even the floors were clean enough to eat off.
Not that I would recommend that …
My own duties at NAVSUP WSS involve Contracting Officer Representative (COR) duties for a program elegantly titled Technical Assistance for Repairable Processing (TARP). This program manages the flow of retrograde material (i.e. used repairables which can be refurbished to like-new condition) from ships and aircraft units scattered all over the globe. These items can be as small as circuit cards to helicopter rotor heads and aircraft engines shipped to and fro in immense protective cans (many designed in part or in whole by coworkers, who labor only feet from my desk).
The point in all of this is to stress the Herculean effort the Services – at least The Navy – undertake to manage – as best as is possible – the service life and availability of crucial components needed by the War Fighter to conduct operations in an increasingly complex, technological world.
Meanwhile, back at FRC Southwest, we viewed F/A-18 wing panels awaiting either refurbishment and reassembly or demilitarization scattered about a huge warehouse/hanger bay in varying states of disrepair and dressing. In an enormous industrial space, you could see a spotless areas dedicated to various intake, evaluation, repair, and testing of components from Navy fighters, helicopters, aircraft and even ship engines all benefitting from a collection of artisans, trained and developed in exacting capabilities.
On a drive and park tour, we also viewed covered, open-sided building were four H-53 type helicopters were shown in the varying stages of refurbishment. From right to left, you could see one aircraft in the evaluation stage, then one in electronic and component removal, a third in complete strip-down/rebuild, and the fourth in completed/testing awaiting its first test flight before being released back into the fleet. From right to left, you saw old and fatigued evolving to almost new, ready-to-go condition. It was quite the impressive migration as each aircraft would be moved down the line to eventual service life extension.
All this benefits not just the War Fighter, but also the Taxpayer, who – in the end – receives more bang for the tax dollar in terms of the original investment in major military equipment!
The Fleet Readiness Centers in concert with a well-integrated supply and distribution network perform what many a civilian taxpayer would consider practical miracles in the capabilities demonstrated in maximizing the service life, performance, and availability of American military equipment. The sad truth is not many of my fellow civilian Navy employees get the opportunity to witness and thereby appreciate the fruit of their individual labors where the proverbial rubber meets the road!
As an NAVSUP employee with over 39 years of experience, even I am immensely impressed by the quality of the Navy’s industrial capability. And I have not seen more than a tiny sliver of total Navy effort. It is – quite frankly – an experience that every single NAVSUP employee who directly or indirectly affects the Navy’s repairable management, procurement, and support operations should be required to enjoy!