US Marine Corps, March 12, 2020 - MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, NC by Kimberly Koonce - Fleet Readiness Center East is boosting readiness for the H-53 heavy-lift helicopter by breathing new life into the depot’s H-53 rotor head program. A partnership agreement with Sikorsky is generating positive results.
In early 2019, fleet demand for H-53 main rotor heads exceeded the number the contractor could produce; additional assets were urgently needed. While FRCE hadn’t conducted extensive production of H-53 rotor heads in several years, the depot had the facilities, skilled artisans and historical knowledge needed to successfully produce the component.
To reestablish the rotor head program at FRCE, the depot entered into a partnership agreement with Sikorsky: Sikorsky continues to supply completed rotor heads to the fleet, but also supplies FRCE with rotor head parts. The depot’s mechanics then provide the labor required to generate the additional rotor heads needed to meet the fleet’s demand.
Since the agreement went into effect in March 2019, the shop has completed three rotor heads. The shop’s goal is to induct six rotor heads per quarter in calendar year 2020. Officials expect the additional rotor heads turned out by FRCE to help boost readiness within the H-53 heavy-lift helicopter program.
“We’re excited that Fleet Readiness Center East can step up and help increase production numbers on these H-53 main rotor heads, which are a critical requirement for the fleet,” said FRCE Commanding Officer Capt. Mark E. Nieto. “Having our depot serve as a second production facility will help prevent future work stoppages on aircraft needing these components. Aircraft maintainers here at FRCE and across the fleet will be able to complete maintenance on these aircraft and get them back to the warfighter without delays.”
Having two facilities producing the rotor heads also provides redundancy for component testing functions, said industrial specialist Jamie Byrd.
“If one test cell goes down, the other facility can assist with no additional contracts required,” he explained. The benefit of the FRCE site is that the fleet will have a (government) facility capable of repairing the main rotor head.”
Allen Broadway, dynamic components maintenance, repair and overhaul branch head, said there was some uncertainty about resuming the program. That’s why the facility took a proactive approach to anticipate any barriers to production. A comprehensive logistical assessment was initiated to include key stakeholders such as supervisors, program managers, engineers, hazardous material supply personnel and Defense Logistics Agency employees. Team members brainstormed to plan for any possible hurdles that could get in the way of a successful program. With more than 170 parts making up a rotor head, Broadway said the team had a lot of roadblocks to consider.
“When everyone gets in a room, and you brainstorm on everything that could impede you, some of these issues are very small that you can take care of right away, but some are complicated and will take more legwork to get lying flat,” he said. “We developed a matrix to identify who had critical items for action, and we would meet every week or so to measure our progress and keep the needle moving in a positive direction. Once we got those logistical elements in place, the artisans, our most valuable assets, should be able to effectively build a rotor head.”
Broadway said since parts availability had previously created challenges for the program, the team looked for ways to guarantee that artisans would have the parts they needed. One strategy was to set aggressive “full-kit” dates to gather all the individual elements that make up the entire rotor head.
“The reason we were so aggressive was to allow buffer for those unknowns, those Murphy’s Law things you haven’t planned for,” Broadway said. “If you know it takes you three weeks to build and a week to test, and you set your full-kit date for five weeks before the rotor head is due for completion, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
Broadway said the kits had to include every part that made up the rotor head, from the largest to the smallest, so the artisans had everything they need to complete the rotor heads.
“They had to go out and make sure they were procuring those little piece parts, the nuts, washers and all that little stuff to enable us to build it,” he said. “We’ve got to have the big expensive parts, but we need those 10 cent washers, as well.”
Broadway said workforce training was another concern the planning team addressed.
“There had been a lot of employee turnaround; a lot of knowledge had been lost due to retirements or promotions,” he said. “There was a concern that the rotor head program would be new for a lot of artisans, mainly in the Industrial Processes Branch. Those areas – such as cleaning, (non-destructive inspection), the machine shop and the composite shop – are integral parts of being successful on a program such as H-53 rotor head. Many of the artisans had never done these processes before.”
Broadway said senior mechanics shared their expertise with newer artisans to ensure everyone was ready to work on the rotor heads.
“One of the contributing factors was experience,” Broadway said. “The main production controller in the area has worked rotor head for a number of years, so there was a lot of experience there. The shop supervisor had been an artisan in that shop, so he’s not only in tune with the personalities in that shop, but he’s also aware of the process and when it needs to be done. That’s a great part of our success.”
Brian Rayfield, the rotor head shop supervisor, said the mechanics were enthusiastic about resuming work on the rotor heads, in addition to repairing landing gear and flight controls. They continued their proactive mindset into their rework processes, he added.
“It’s a big portion of our workload, but they didn’t forget anything. We went right through it, the processes we were familiar with,” Rayfield said. “The rotor head team, the mechanics who work on them, they’re very proactive. They quickly elevate things, identify issues. If they see a problem with a routed part, they identify it immediately – they go so far as to initiate contact with the back shop. It’s been a real team effort; everybody has an important part to play. You give the mechanics the things that they need to get the work done, and they will make it happen.”
FRCE is North Carolina's largest maintenance, repair, overhaul and technical services provider, with more than 4,200 civilian, military and contract workers. Its annual revenue exceeds $835 million. The depot generates combat air power for America’s Marines and naval forces while serving as an integral part of the greater U.S. Navy; Naval Air Systems Command; and Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers.