General: Depots similar to geriatric hospitals

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE — The new commander of Air Force Materiel Command likened the role of Air Force depots to geriatric hospitals as the Air Force fleet of frontline fighters, bombers, tankers and cargo aircraft continues to age.

Gen. Donald Hoffman, speaking to local media Tuesday afternoon following a two-day visit to Robins Air Force Base, said the depot work force at Robins and two other Air Force centers was “getting really, really good” at understanding the science of geriatric engine and aircraft repair.

“But unfortunately, the patient is getting sicker and sicker each time they come in,” he noted. “We’re going to be in the business of taking care of old aircraft for quite a while.”

The Air Force Academy graduate took charge of the Ohio-headquartered command in November of last year after serving for more than three years as the military deputy for the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition at the Pentagon. AFMC employs some 74,000 people — largely civilian — at nine locations. Three, including Robins, are depots performing worldwide management, sustainment and major overhaul of Air Force weapon systems.

Hoffman said the visit to Robins gave him a much greater appreciation for the local mission.

“My overwhelming impression is how huge this operation is and how strong the community support is for the mission,” he said. “I was also impressed by the professionalism of the work force and their dedication to the mission.”

He declined to speculate on how the current economic downturn and the potential for future budget reductions might affect the replacement of legacy systems and the future of Air Force depots. The average age of Air Force aircraft is steadily increasing with 30 and 40-year-old systems continuing to play significant, frontline roles.

“We’ll find out what’s in or out of the president’s budget in April,” he said. “Congress also has their role to play. That’s the process. As for AFMC, we’ll continue sustaining the active fleet for as long as that is needed.”

But the aging process is making that sustainment role more difficult, he said. “We’re trying to stay ahead and see if there is technical insertion or a better way of geriatric sustainment to keep these aircraft flying until we get replacements.”

The three Air Force depots have workloads at 80 percent to 90 percent. “So (the future of our depots) will be driven more by our military strategy, our national security strategy and how big our military is going to be,” Hoffman said. “That will drive future (base realignment and closure) decisions rather than capacity at our centers.”

Hoffman, also a master parachutist, said significant progress is being made in resolving problems with Air Force C-130s. The entire fleet — about 600 aircraft — was grounded March 4 when cracked upper wing barrel nuts were discovered on a C-130H undergoing overhaul at Robins. The nuts, 26 per aircraft, anchor a rainbow-shaped fitting that holds the wings to the center fuselage of the plane. “We’ve surveyed the entire fleet and 70 percent have been returned to flight,” he said Tuesday. “What we need now is a new supply of nuts.”

The defective component was traced to a single manufacturer. “But we don’t have lot numbers,” the general added, “so we have to assume that all the nuts from that manufacturer are susceptible and all of them have to come off the aircraft. (The Defense Logistics Agency) is gearing to produce what we need, but it will be April or May before we have sufficient quantities.”

He said source of repair decisions for unmanned aerial vehicles continue to evolve. In a departure from previous practice, AFMC recently assigned airframe depot maintenance responsibility for two of three UAVs to Hill Air Force Base, Utah, although all three systems are managed at Robins.

“There is quite a family of systems and equipment that goes with UAVs,” he said. “Overall management might be ascribed to one depot, but work sharing is another issue.”

He said workload assignments also were complicated by data rights. “Some (of the UAVs) were born from experimental roots and they’ve evolved into very effective aircraft in the niche role they’re now playing,” Hoffman remarked. “But we don’t own the data rights in some cases to repair them. So we will have a relationship with the original equipment manufacturer for a long time.”

On an upbeat note, the commander said that AFMC would be hiring additional civilian workers, although the scope of any impact at Robins was not immediately available.

“We’re hiring because we have a shortfall,” he said. “It’s not directly tied to the economic situation because the job of national defense goes on.”

The new commander said the current economic situation may be an advantage for AFMC. “Some of the skills and trades we value might be more available right now,” he noted. “So it’s making a positive of a negative situation.”