They’re taking a plane apart at Robins, and that’s just the start of a good thing

Aircraft maintainer Alvin Beck inspects doors on a a wing of the first J-STARS plane to undergo overhaul maintenance at Robins Air Force Base.
Aircraft maintainer Alvin Beck inspects doors on a a wing of the first J-STARS plane to undergo overhaul maintenance at Robins Air Force Base. wcrenshaw@macon.com

The Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System sits in an isolated area on the back side of Robins and for many years has mostly operated independent of the rest of the base, but not anymore.

J-STARS and the massive maintenance area on the opposite side of the runway are now welded together. For the first time a J-STARS plane is undergoing depot maintenance at Robins.

While the J-STARS maintainers do the field maintenance required to keep the planes flying, depot maintenance is a complete overhaul of an aircraft that involves tearing it down to its bones and inspecting components piece by piece. It’s expected to take 10 months.

Previously the well-traveled E-8C planes have undergone depot maintenance at a Northrop Grumman facility in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Northrop Grumman will continue doing depot maintenance on J-STARS planes, but Robins will now also do about one per year to help keep more of the small fleet available for combat operations, said Brig. Gen. John Kubinec, commander of the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex.

“Our combatant commanders need this platform and they need it around the world,” Kubinec said as he checked out progress of the work Monday. “We need to get as many aircraft into the fight as possible so the Air Force asked us to help get more aircraft availability and more readiness to the operational unit at Robins.”

The National Defense Authorization Act approved by Congress this year killed a program to buy new planes for J-STARS, but it also required the Air Force to keep flying the current aircraft until 2028 while a replacement system, to be based at Robins, becomes operational. The act requires the Air Force to keep six J-STARS planes available to commanders at all times.

Kubinec said about 80 new jobs are being created at the base as a result of the work, and hiring is still going on. When the J-STARS planes are finally retired, those workers will be moved to other areas.

The Air Force began buying J-STARS planes in the 1990s and eventually acquired 17. All had once been commercial passenger airliners. The one being worked on at Robins was a Jordanian airliner.

“We bought them as used aircraft and modified them into the J-STARS and now they’ve been flying as J-STARS for decades,” Kubinec said. “When we tear them apart you don’t know what you are going to find.”

The J-STARS plane was inducted into the maintenance area on July 23 and the work, expected to take 300 days, is already ahead of schedule, said David Rice, the E-8C flight chief.

The engines and all of the interior electronics have been removed. On Monday, workers were finishing the tear down and inspection phase and preparing to enter the repair phase, They were carefully going over the aircraft with small flashlights, documenting the condition of various components to determine what parts need to be replaced or repaired.

Ordinarily the first step in depot maintenance for other planes is to strip off all the paint, then it would get a new paint job after the maintenance work is done. The J-STARS plane, however, was determined not to need a paint job.

For months prior to the induction,, workers went over to the J-STARS area to get hands-on experience with active duty and Georgia Air National Guard troops that maintain the planes, Rice said.

“It’s a learning curve for us,” Rice said.

Jeremy Pradarits, a guardsman with J-STARS, has moved over to be a full-time avionics technician on the J-STARS depot maintenance. Although he has plenty of experience with the planes, the new level of work has been a learning curve for him as well.

“This is a lot more involved than what I did over there, but it’s a pretty easy transition,” he said.

He said members of the J-STARS unit are excited to have the work done at Robins.

“I know a lot of people are happy,” he said. “They think we can do a better job. Plus, if there is an issue we are right across the ramp.”

It’s not the only new workload at Robins. The base has also started doing maintenance on the Global Hawk drone and Navy C-130s. The base plans to hire 1,200 new people over the next year.

J-STARS features a radar that sits under the belly of the plane and tracks enemy movements over a large area. Army personnel fly on the plane to communicate to troops on the ground. J-STARS has been heavily used in the Global War on Terror, but the Air Force chose to cancel new planes because of J-STARS inability to operate in contested air space.