As Navy missions pile up, so does jet maintenance

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot


The Navy’s fighter jet fleet has been flown hard during nearly 15 years of conflict in the Middle East. And with the next-generation fighter years from being operational, the service’s F/A-18 Super Hornets and legacy Hornets must continue flying far longer than originally planned.

The result: Too many jets are down for service-extending upgrades, and not enough are ready to fly. For now, Navy leaders say they can manage the shortfall by ramping up maintenance and putting extra flight hours on airplanes that aren’t down for repairs.

Residents around Oceana Naval Air Station likely haven’t noticed a difference: With multiple air wings preparing for deployments, there’s been no reduction of window-rattling practice flights.

But without additional funding to build a few dozen new Super Hornets over the next couple of years, top brass warn they eventually won’t have enough jets to keep pilots proficient and respond to conflicts.

“Bottom line: Our readiness consumption has exceeded our readiness production,” said Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, commander of Naval Air Forces. “Now we’re trying to rebalance that.”

The Navy has been tracking its strained fighter jet inventory for several years, Shoemaker said. The problem came to a head last fall when the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush was preparing to return to Norfolk Naval Station.

After months of combat flights over Iraq, more than half of the carrier’s legacy Hornets were at or near 8,000 flight hours – more than 2,000 hours beyond their intended service lives – and would soon need to enter long-term maintenance.

As a result, the Navy had to tap another squadron to be on call in case the Bush and its air wing had to respond to a crisis.

“That was eye-opening,” Shoemaker said.

Since then, the Navy’s estimated fighter shortfall has grown from 65 jets – a manageable number, Shoemaker said – to more than 100. Of the 560 Hornets that remain in service, half are down for long-term maintenance. Of the 523 Super Hornets – a newer variant of the 1980s-era jet – about one in five is down for repairs.

So far, the shortage hasn’t had a significant impact on flight operations at Oceana, said Capt. Randy Stearns, commodore of Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, which is responsible for manning, training and equipping the Navy’s East Coast-based fighter squadrons.

“Half our Hornets are out of reporting, and we’re mitigating that by flying the other half more,” Stearns said. “Essentially, we’re spreading that peanut butter thinner. And that works for now, but long term, we’re wearing out the force.”

A few factors have exacerbated the problem:

– The Navy originally expected the F-35 to be fully operational in 2012. That won’t happen until at least 2018 now.

– Three years ago, when sequestration required across-the-board defense cuts and a civilian hiring freeze, the Navy lost hundreds of workers at its long-term aircraft maintenance centers.

– Once maintenance workers opened up the Hornets that had reached 8,000 flight hours, they found corrosion in places they hadn’t expected. That required a lot of extra work.

“We’re flying legacy jets that shouldn’t be flying right now,” Stearns said. “We’ve extended these past the time we thought we’d be flying them, and we’ve learned some lessons through that process.”

Stearns emphasized the shortfall would have no effect on safety.

“We’re not going to be launching unsafe jets,” he said.

Thursday, the Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which sets priorities for military spending. It included funding for 12 new Super Hornets as well as ramping up production of F-35s. The $612 billion bill, which authorizes an array of funding for defense and foreign policy issues, now goes to conference with the House.

If the additional Super Hornets make it through the appropriations process, it will mitigate the problem, Stearns said, but ultimately the Navy needs about 36 new F/A-18s to close the gap.

Short of that, the Navy has taken other measures to squeeze more life out of its aging fleet.

In a hangar outside Stearns’ office at Oceana, teams of civilian maintenance workers turned wrenches on a couple dozen Hornets and Super Hornets. The workers have received additional training in recent months on how to find and repair corrosion sooner. That way, it won’t take as long to get the jets through long-term maintenance, Stearns said.

In addition, the Navy has hired hundreds of civilian workers, returning its maintenance workforce back to pre-sequestration levels for the first time this year.

But to clear the backlog, the Navy estimates it will need to hire another 600 civilian maintenance workers.

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