Good ideas for maintenance


Special Topics - Aerospace Industry

Robert A. Donahue Jr., U.S. Army Aviation Center, Fort Rucker, Alabama

At the United States Army Aviation Center (USAAVNC), Fort Rucker, Alabama, the Army trains its helicopter and airplane pilots. USAAVNC's flight training operations are unique and challenging. Fort Rucker flies over 25 percent of the Army's annual flight hours on only 7 percent of the Army's aircraft inventory while using less than 10 percent of Aviation's repair parts. You may not notice it while driving through this quiet farming region, but here lies a “business” of hectic, continuous project management-bringing together the people, repair parts, tools, information, and money at the right time, right place, and in the right amount to economically launch over 700 training flights a day.

For over 30 years, the Army and members of the Defense Aerospace Industry have teamed up to develop innovations, or “good ideas,” to meet this challenge. Here are four of these good ideas:

  • Make an agreement or contract between the “operator” and the “maintainer” on maintenance support. Use automation systems to make this agreement work.
  • Fix forward with “smart” diagnostic equipment.
  • Relook and redesign weapon systems inspection programs.
  • Resource to complete actual or anticipated mission requirements, focusing on sustainment, not arbitrary readiness goals.

You may not notice it while driving through this quiet farming region, but here lies a “business” of hectic, continuous project management-bringing together the people, repair parts, tools, information, and money at the right time, right place, and in the right amount to economically launch over 700 training flights a day.

I think it's important to share these ideas with project managers in general for three reasons:

  • Weapons systems like Armor's Abrams Tank, Infantry's Bradley Fighting Vehicle, Field Artillery's Multiple Rocket Launcher (MLR), and Air Defense's Patriot Missile have reached a level of sophistication equal to or even greater than that of Aviation's aircraft. Other Army training centers that manage these weapons can benefit from Aviation's successes. Similar analogies can be found in industry.
  • Commanders from all the Armed Services, who have to take trained people and ready equipment around the world to fight, must now, more than ever, mind and manage their “checkbooks.” There is no longer “free issue” of big-ticket items like engines, transmissions, avionics “black boxes,” and the like. Getting to a fight “the Firstest, with the Mostest” now includes managing your money so you can afford to get there. In the Department of Defense (DOD), this program is called Defense Business Operating Fund (DBOF). Again, these same pressures are found in business.
  • Pick up any newspaper, newsletter, or trade magazine and you will be sure to notice that none of us can afford to have backbreaking repair bills from advanced weapons systems. In Army lingo, the effort to curb such bills is called reducing operating and support (O&S) costs. And this too is true in industry in general.
Aviation AH-64 Apache

Aviation AH-64 Apache

All three are considerable challenges for everyone in the Defense business. With them in mind, let me now discuss USAAVNC's four good ideas, that might offer some help in meeting these challenges.


First, the foundation for our good ideas is a contract for maintenance services to economically support 24-hour-per-day, near-combat-level flight operations on a small fleet of aircraft. Without using any fancy contract terms, this is simply an agreement between operator and maintainer on how to get a job done, while knowing and staying within the limitations of maintenance capability and budget.

USAAVNC, as the “operator,” agrees to provide our maintainers what we need from them in advance—daily mission requirements and an annual flight hour program. In English, this means we try to tell our 2000-person contractor what we plan on flying both the next day and in the upcoming year. This is not as easy as it sounds considering we launch over 700 flights a day, day in, day out.

In return, we ask the following from our contractor:

  • Properly equipped aircraft on time for training;
  • Safe and properly maintained aircraft; and
  • Lowest cost in terms of labor labor-hours and repair parts usage.

The maintainer manages the resources (parts and labor) to meet what we need, no more, no less.

Of course, we realize our “crystal ball” is imperfect—our daily and annual training needs change. Fortunately, our “agreement” recognizes this. It is flexible enough for us to surge in operations as we did for Desert Storm and to cut back to meet reduced budgets. Both of these are done “automatically” without costly, time consuming contract modifications and amendments. Balanced incentives (and penalties) for performance, reducing costs, and providing quality aircraft keep our contractors in the “black,” and our bill payers and customers (the pilots) happy, In contracting language, this agreement is called a cost plus, multiple incentive contract.

Critical to making this agreement work is a rapid, accurate exchange and availability of information for operators, maintainers, and bill payers—a management information system. Here we have the Army's automated PRISM system—Programmed Real Time Information System, Management. For the operator, it does everything from scheduling the aircraft needed for training with the proper configuration for each flight, to entering the flight hours, pilots' names, social security numbers, and more, to keeping flight records on hundreds of pilots. The maintainer gets everything from almost “hands off” ordering and stocking of repair parts to linking a fault on an aircraft to the people who will fix it, plus ordering any needed parts. Of course the bill payers appreciate the fact that PRISM keeps track of and accounts for the annual $100 million in contract costs and over $400 million for repair parts.


The second idea is to design and build diagnostic test equipment that reduces maintenance labor-hours needed to find faults in electronic systems, and to reduce costly no-evidence-of-faults (NEOF). NEOF describes a condition where a mechanic thinks, or sees an indication, that a “black box” is faulty, which may cause an inoperable system. In reality, the “black box” works; the indication is faulty, and thus the term NEOF. NEOFs are costly because the mechanic spends time swapping out one perfectly good component with another, and the Army pays to send good components back through the supply and repair pipeline.

“Smart” diagnostic testers or break-out boxes accurately pinpoint faults in a system, saving labor-hours in troubleshooting, and reducing NEOFs. Our present contractor designed 14 of these break-out boxes for our AH-64 Apaches. The results from using these are impressive-our Apache electronic systems' readiness increased 35 percent. On one particular system, the Apache's Heading and Attitude Reference System (HARS), our demand for the $79,765 HARS “black box” dropped by 95 percent from a 4-month pipeline of 48 units to 2 units. Together, these break-out boxes let the contractor reduce personnel requirements by 14, saving Fort Rucker maintenance labor-hour costs.

These testers are also “smart” because they are low cost and easy to use. They are designed by the people who will have to use them, carry them, and find the off-the-shelf technology to build them. They are almost “disposable.” The HARS tester, for example, cost only $127 to build, while a similar proposal made to Army “ruggedized” specifications cost $5,800.


The third innovation is the process of relooking and redesigning how we maintain weapons systems. The focus is on eliminating or reducing redundant or unnecessary preventive maintenance inspections that historically do not find frequent materiel faults. We recently completed such a process on our primary trainer, the UH-1 helicopter. The results are that we-can maintain the UH-1 with less labor-how while maintaining the same or better level of readiness and safety.

We reduced the labor-hours on a UH-1 daily and a major 150-flight-hour inspection by reviewing historical records and determining which inspections found faults, and how frequently these occurred. If an inspection task, with a specific time interval, found many faults, then we kept the time interval. If not, then we increased the interval, thereby reducing labor-hours spent on inspections that would not find faults. Why pay for the cost of an inspection that does not provide the benefit of finding faults for preventive maintenance?

Of course, safety is our rule, not an exception. Therefore, engineers and logisticians performed risk assessments on any inspection changes to ensure that the benefits from the process far outweighed the risks. Remember, we did not remove any inspection tasks but increased the interval of those that were “unproductive” within a previous time period.

The redesigned UH-l program, called the 300-hour phase/150-hour special inspection and 15-hour/14-day daily inspection program, is in place, reducing our operating and support (O&S) costs without sacrificing readiness and safe operations. We recently completed the process on our AH-1, and have begun a similar program for its daily and major 150-hour inspection.

The results are that we can maintain the UH-1 with less labor-hours while maintaining the same or better level of readiness and safety.

There is nothing new here; in the 1950s the airline industry challenged an old assumption that inspection intervals were directly related to reliability. After completing a study similar to Fort Rucker's, a successful program was made for the Boeing 747, and later other aircraft. Let's make this business as usual again.


Finally one innovation that evolved over the years at Fort Rucker is to pay only for what we will actually fly, not pay to achieve an arbitrary readiness goal. Maintaining aircraft at fully mission capable (FMC) status, even if they do not fly have fixed costs-costs in labor-hours of preparing aircraft with inspections and services, and inventory costs of stocking repair parts, support equipment, tools, etc. Fort Rucker could not afford, for example, to routinely maintain a fixed readiness goal of 80 FMC aircraft out of 100, if we needed only to fly 40 training missions. These costs between what we “need,” number of aircraft to meet training requirements, and what is “wanted,” fixed readiness goals, would quickly drain budgets and critically overextend maintenance capabilities.

Of course, there is a need to maintain a certain inventory of aircraft to manage and balance the often competing requirements of training and maintenance. It also makes sense to pay for spare FMC aircraft to be prepared for the inevitable “unscheduled” faults. However, USAAVNC has found that you can effectively train on and manage complex weapons systems without having to rely on readiness goals that do not coincide with the goals of performance, quality, and reduced O&S costs.

Further, our surge in flight training for Desert Storm/Shield, setting unprecedented records for flight hours on aircraft like the CH-47D aircraft, showed that training centers (and possibly warfighting units) can transition from a peacetime training operation tempo to a wartime footing without the “buffer” a constant readiness goal provides.

You can call this “Just In Time,” project management, etc., but here it is called “sustainment”—maintaining a level of weapons systems readiness that is carefully based on the time period the weapons systems (or unit) will need to operate at this level; the environment the systems will operate in; and the resources available to maintain the weapon at this level. You must consider them all to get a true picture of “readiness.” Fort Rucker is using “sustainment,” and it is working.

The above innovations—a good contract, “smart” tools to fix on the flight line, continuous improvement of inspections, and the concept of sustainment—have let Fort Rucker, for over thirty years, do a lot of safe flying, for a pretty good dollar. These concepts are just as applicable in maintaining equipment used in projects in general. They, and other such innovations, can provide savings on projects far in excess of the costs required to implement them.


Captain Robert A. Donahue Jr. is a United States Army helicopter aviator and aircraft maintenance engineer and logistician. He has a B.S. in aerospace engineering from the United States Military Academy and M.S. in systems management from the University of Denver. He presently works at Fort Rucker, Alabama, where he is the Chief of the Materiel and Systems Management Branch that administers the technical aspects of the $100 million maintenance service contract at the United States Army Aviation Center.

AUGUST 1992 pm network



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