TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. — The E-6 Service Life Extension Program recently delivered a structurally restored communications and strategic command aircraft to the Navy in a record 132 flow days.
The Service Life Extension Program in Hangar 2283 began in 2009 to enable the Navy’s 16 Mercury aircraft to fly missions for another 20 years. The program’s customer, Navy Strategic Communications Wing ONE, based at Tinker Air Force Base, praised the latest delivery of its 13th reconditioned plane.
“The three most recent SLEP aircraft were returned to the Navy under the target goal of 150 days,” wing Deputy Commander Capt. Ed McCabe said. “The aircraft delivered in September 2015 was more than two weeks early, greatly enhancing operational flexibility and mission readiness.
“This could not have come at a better time for the Navy, as aircraft availability is extremely critical due to numerous ongoing modifications to these vital National and Strategic Nuclear Command and Control Assets. There have been challenges, but the Air Force, Navy and civilian teams working together have overcome them each in turn and will continue to do so.”
SLEP Program managers and maintainers take ownership of the hurdles they’ve overcome, especially as a new program in 2009. The first E-6 took over 270 days to finish.
Leaders say they’re proud of a 180-degree turnaround from those days.
Bob Helgeson, 566th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron director, said the SLEP enterprise team made up of both Navy and Air Force personnel successfully applied the principles of the AFSC Way, gated processes and other Air Force Sustainment Center management tools to reduce maintenance flow days by over 50 percent. Those significant changes allowed the team to exceed the 133-day “Art of the Possible” target, Helgeson said.
“Not only did the team exceed the “Art of the Possible” goals, they also achieved something more important — the right results, the right way,” Helgeson said. “There were zero defects. We turned the aircraft back over to our Navy customer and they were able to quickly get it back on the ready line. That is very important to our Navy customer due to the limited aircraft they have available and the critical mission they support.”
Early on, the roughly 60-member team used to have to borrow tools from other aircraft programs and had to rely on qualified mechanics from other organizations to do some of the program’s prep work.
“We used to depend on E-3s (AWACS maintainers) to come and take the engines off,” said First Line Supervisor Reggie Lee. Now the sheet metal guy is not just the sheet metal guy. In the first gate, he can take the engines off, or the tail feathers off, or help depanel the plane.
“That is probably the biggest reason that we went from 200-plus days to 132 — guys willing to cross-train and learn other jobs. They own this. This belongs to them.”
Scott Wyskiel, SLEP program manager, put it another way: “We took ‘it’s not my job’ out of the vocabulary over here.”
SLEP team members’ primary job is to overhaul the wing and tail structures, strengthening worn metal on planes that can have more than 22,000 flight hours.
About 15,000 rivet-like fasteners are removed and replaced during more than 30,000 work hours on each plane. The remaining holes in the 148-foot wingspan are checked to see if they’re the right size, have cracks or show other problems for repair.
Maintainers often examine nooks and crannies that haven’t been seen since the aircraft rolled out of the factory. They’ve found loose fasteners and tools. Some planes were missing fasteners where blueprints said they should be.
“When we get done with it, we have tight fasteners, no cracks, no corrosion,” Mr. Lee said. “We’ve got an almost new — sometimes better than new — plane.”
Maintainers also restore and repair all fuel bays, with the job of repairing leaks expanding over the years. “The scope of the fuel work changed from leak-free in SLEP-worked areas to returning a leak-free aircraft to the squadrons,” said Ellen Lane,
Aircraft Overhaul and Modification section chief for E-6 Navy programs. “The people evolved with the program.”
Kim Phillippi is the program’s modifications coordinator, working at the hangar to ensure the Navy’s demanding service requirements are met. He said SLEP’s process has improved greatly through teamwork, coordination and communication between Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex supervisors, artisans, Navy active-duty sailors and Strategic Communications Wing ONE.
“The process was evaluated and through shared learning and the use of the ‘Gated Process’ the team has moved the scheduled out of service time down to 150 days with the last three completed under that requirement,” Phillippi said. “It takes great people to make this dynamic work and schedule possible. The SLEP team takes pride in their work and accomplishments. They are the best of the best on Tinker. When you have good people, it makes my job to meet the Navy’s requirements on time, under budget and a quality product really easy.”
Swing shift supervisor Brenda Bluhm said SLEP mechanics “take a lot of pride in the work they do to support the Navy’s mission with zero defects.”
The Service Life Extension Program’s work is scheduled to end in 2017 when all 16 aircraft are refurbished. More than 20 aircrews from Tinker fly the E-6 to allow the National Command Authority to communicate 24/7 with nuclear and non-nuclear strategic forces.
First Lt. Frank W. Larkins Jr., 566th Aircraft Maintenance Support maintenance operations officer, also praised leadership for the program’s success.
“We rise and fall on the back of leadership,” the lieutenant said. “When we started, they showed buy-in on the whole gated process and these crews saw that. The success of the SLEP program is the result of sheer ownership by the workers.”