A New Experience: Military Learjet Maintenance

The 2005 Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC) announcement to shut down flying operations at the Fargo-based North Dakota Air National Guard (NDANG) fell with a thud. With an unsurpassed safety record (more than 30 years and 145,000 flight hours in fighters without an accident) and two Hughes Trophies in the F-4 Phantom and F-16 Falcon under their belts, a melancholy mood permeated the base as the maintainers absorbed the news.

Also known as the Happy Hooligans, the 119th Wing has received major Air Force awards for maintenance, including the USAF Daedalian Maintenance Trophy. Sure, there was the C-27J Spartan on a distant horizon, but without a means of retaining personnel and their skills, a Herculean effort to rebuild maintenance skills would await them when the time came. Old talent would move to other jobs, perhaps outside their unit, and new talent would have no one to mentor them.

Bridge mission: C-21

It was a bleak picture until the announcement they’d be getting the C-21 to work on during the five-or-so-year interim period — they called it a “bridge” mission. “A C-21? What is a C-21?”

They shortly learned the C-21, an off-the-shelf Learjet 35A, had always been maintained by civilian mechanics. There were no Air Force tech schools for it, no Air Force training standards for it, and tech data amounted to Learjet maintenance manuals. They felt like the Pekingese that caught the car.

The news of the airplane’s arrival surprised everyone from the Support Program Office (SPO) at Tinker AFB, OK, down to the flight line crew chiefs. The NDANG shortly learned the airplanes, victims of budget cutbacks, were being diverted from a trip to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ, for storage; the aircraft were being saved to fly another day.

Military maintenance program

At Fargo, and later at Hartford, CT, and Battle Creek, MI, training and management personnel determined how to create a military maintenance program from scratch. There were no examples to draw from; while the Air Force had moved military maintenance programs over to civilian contracting on many occasions, no one could remember such a program moving the other direction. About the only guidance was in the form of general Air Force regulations saying if it was FAA-certified, then the unit would have to maintain it to FAA standards. From this tidbit the NDANG went about the business of developing the C-21’s military maintenance program.

Essentially, program development required maintenance of the aircraft according to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements using Air Force processes. As an example, if the FAA requires a 24-month check of the aircraft pitot-static system, the job would be accomplished by Air Force technicians qualified to Air Force pitot-static system check standards. A sheet metal repair would be accomplished by a technician trained to Air Force standards, but using methods and technical data approved by the FAA. And so it went.

Learjet training

To gain an understanding of the C-21 systems, the NDANG contracted with a civilian Learjet training school to give general maintenance training to full-time technicians. A training aircraft was flown in from Wright-Patterson AFB for hands-on familiarization. From this training, technicians gained a basic understanding of the aircraft and its systems.

Avionics people learned civilian radios and equipment. Crew chiefs learned about pre-flights. Engine, hydraulic, fuel, and other specialists homed in on their specialty areas. Jobs started to become defined and organization began to take shape across the maintenance group.

As the aircraft began to show up in early 2007, the technicians observed temporary CLS personnel as they performed jobs; later CLS personnel observed as we reversed roles with them. By July 2007 Fargo was confident enough to declare a take-over of maintenance on Sept. 1, a full month before the scheduled handover date of Oct. 1.

The Air Force process

As it dug into the process, the Air Guard learned to work with FAA technical data far less detailed than Air Force Technical Orders (TOs). It learned to blend original equipment manufacturer (OEM) service bulletins and FAA Airworthiness Directives into a system of Air Force publications. It found sources for technical data not available through the SPO or OEM (like brake component manuals and emergency avionics battery data) and created methods to ensure the data was current. It gained electronic versions of tech data to accommodate Air Force electronic tech data initiatives (see sidebar). This dynamic process continues to be monitored and refined.

The Happy Hooligans created, from scratch and through conversations with engineers and Lear mechanics across the nation, the means of accomplishing Air Force-mandated processes never seen on a Learjet.

Making an aircraft “Safe for Maintenance,” for instance, grew from nothing to a training class and new tech data. Phase inspections were broken down into work cards, assigning shop areas of responsibility in comprehensive, detailed steps and constructed directly from OEM maintenance manuals. Thousands of pages were written, organized, reviewed, and published to meet Air Force requirements, training goals, and to clarify processes for maintainers.

On the way, they found and corrected literally hundreds of technical data errors discovered in the FAA approved maintenance publications, reporting both to tech data monitors at the SPO and at the OEM. The technicians determined many improved methods of conducting inspections and repairs, always with an eye toward safety first and cost savings when possible. And you know what? The process works … well.

To be sure, “Blue Suit” maintenance has been a success. Supported by a military maintenance team, the Happy Hooligans have excelled while operating in 20 countries on missions for Air Mobility Command, USCENTCOM (Middle East Operations), JOSAC (Domestic Airlift, including VIPs, humanitarian, and air ambulance) and the National Guard Bureau (NGB) in Washington, D.C. Evidence includes the 2009 JOSAC Unit of the Year Award, a record of 100 percent mission accomplishment while deployed in the Middle East, NGB Pilot Qualification Training for other C-21 units. AMT

 

Clint Lowe has spent most of his aviation career with the United States Air Force and Air National Guard in a variety of roles including maintenance, safety, training, oversight, and accident investigation. In 2007 he received the Maintenance Group Senior NCO of the Year Award. He currently is a Quality Assurance Inspector/Quality Assurance Representative with the North Dakota Air National Guard in Fargo, ND.

Clint Lowe holds an FAA A&P certificate with Inspection Authorization and a Commercial Pilot certificate with instrument and multi engine ratings.

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