US Naval Air systems Command (NAVAIR), May 24, 2017 - NAVAL AIR STATION NORTH ISLAND, Calif. - From its use in the evacuation of the U.S. embassy during the Somalian Civil War in 1991, to the Persian Gulf War and its role today in supporting the war on terror in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter is a staple in the logistics toolbox of Navy and Marine Corps operations.
For more than 30 years the Sikorsky-built aircraft has moved personnel and equipment, and it remains the largest helicopter ever built by the Defense Department.
Today, about 150 of the helicopters are still in service. Super Stallions are found in naval squadrons on the East and West Coast, and those assigned to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar (MCAS) are maintained and repaired by the artisans of Fleet Readiness Center Southwest (FRCSW).
The FRCSW CH-53 program is comprised of approximately 104 employees including production control personnel and planners.
“About 60 to 70 of those employees are the artisans on the floor. They include the primary trades of sheet metal mechanics which is the largest group, electricians, and mechanics,” said John Santos, CH-53 production manager.
The program operates in two buildings: 333, where fiberglass and component work is done, and 378 where the remaining airframe work is completed.
The maintenance schedule of the Super Stallions is based upon a 54-month cycle called the Integrated Maintenance Program (IMP).
The IMP targets structural repairs to the fuselage, and includes replacing the skin, transition bulkhead, cockpit floorboard, any KAPTON electrical wiring upgrades and corrosion repair throughout the aircraft.
The IMP workload standard requires about 16,000 manhours per aircraft.
After induction, FRCSW artisans disassemble the aircraft and begin the IMP inspection specifications.
“We’ll typically do a lot of metal repairs that require us to disassemble electronic and mechanical components so we can access specific areas to rebuild the aircraft,” Santos noted.
The program is a combination of organizational level (O-level), or work handled by the Marine Corps squadrons, and depot-level work.
“We’ll also do a lot of troubleshooting,” Santos said. “If our spec says `test the landing gear operation,’ for example, and when we test it the landing gear doesn’t respond, we’re supposed to call the Marines because the landing gear system is maintained by the O-level maintainers. The spec only tells us to test it.”
However, the Marines have the option to turn an O-level repair over to the depot.
“An In-service Repair (ISR) may get to the type commander (TYCOM) who would grant the hours for the repair. The ISR request still goes through the squadron because they need to cut the planner and estimator request to get it submitted to the TYCOM,” Santos said.
Like other aging airframes, recurring areas of the Super Stallion are beginning to show signs of failure.
“A fitting toward the back of the aircraft near the base of the ramp have been cracking and we’ve seen issues on both West and East Coast aircraft,” Santos said. “This is a repair that requires the input of mechanics, sheet metal, machinists and non-destructive inspection (NDI) personnel.”
To better align the tail drive shaft, Santos said that a new tooling kit was added to the IMP specification.
“It’s a surface interim change notice that adds this as a spec, and this procedure will suffice on an interim basis while the aircraft is here,” he said.
“When the tail of the aircraft folds, and when it spreads back out, there’s a coupling that connects the tail to the fuselage that has teeth. We’ve been finding that sometimes they are clocked different, so the alignment makes them flush to each other so the power can transfer efficiently and safely from the gear box to the tail rotor.”
FRCSW is scheduled to induct 10 CH-53s during fiscal year 2017.