VNG AASF reaches top aviation maintenance readiness level

One of the Virginia National Guard’s UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters sits on the flight line at the state’s Army Aviation Support Facility in Sandston, Virginia. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti)

SANDSTON, Va. — After a thoughtful investment in their people and processes, the Virginia National Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility reached the pinnacle of maintenance readiness with 100 percent of their fleet fully mission capable, or FMC. Virginia’s AASF, located in Sandston, Virginia, reached this peak during late spring. Leaders and maintainers alike credit the increase in maintenance readiness to refined processes, exceptional support from external organizations and the dedication and drive of their workforce.

“It’s extremely rare to hit 100 percent” said Col. William X. Taylor, Virginia’s state aviation officer and commander of the AASF. “It takes a lot of effort on all parts; it doesn’t just happen and you have to have everyone working together.”

Virginia’s fleet is largely comprised of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. For an aircraft to be fully mission capable, it must be ready to launch and able to conduct any mission for which it is qualified. Other maintenance readiness levels include partially mission capable, which means an aircraft can be flown, but only under certain restrictions.

Virginia National Guard aviation crews and Chesterfield County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Scuba Rescue Team members train on rescue hoist operations June 10, 2020, in Chesterfield County, Virginia. (U.S. National Guard photo by Cotton Puryear)

“We can have every one of our aircraft flyable, but every one of them can have a restriction and our FMC rate would be zero,” explained Sgt. 1st Class Paul Radford, the noncommissioned officer in charge of production control. Restrictions vary, he said, and include limitations on flying in certain weather conditions or might require a bird to only be flown as part of a formation with other helicopters.

Taylor explained that the Department of the Army FMC standard is 75 percent, a still-difficult goal to meet, and one that proved challenging in Virginia for several years. Over the course of his career, Taylor said, he’s never seen a facility actively managing and flying a large number of aircraft hit 100 percent FMC. He added that Virginia managed to achieve that mark while maintaining a fleet of older aircraft and manned at around 60 percent compared to the active component.

“We’ve doubled our [operational readiness] rate […] and that happened through processes and people and working efficiently and smartly,” Taylor said. “The people haven’t worked harder, we haven’t been pushing them beyond the normal hours, we just fixed it by working smart and using the right processes.”

The process of keeping a Black Hawk helicopter maintained is extensive. For every hour the blades of a helicopter turn, the aircraft requires somewhere around 12-man hours of maintenance, said Capt. Charles Byrd, the logistics management officer at Virginia’s AASF.

The aircraft demand both scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. Scheduled maintenance is the routine maintenance all machines require, just a bit more complex given the nature of these flying machines. Scheduled maintenance is required both by date and by flight hours.

“For example, every 90 days for the location that we’re at, we have to do a corrosion inspection on the aircraft,” Byrd said, explaining that the facility’s geographic proximity to saltwater generates the interval requirements. The inspection requires a careful examination of the aircraft from nose to tail to ensure it is free of corrosion. Even minute corrosion on an aircraft could cause a crack that could lead to catastrophic failure, he said.

“In aviation, we can’t afford any of those types of failures,” Byrd said. “We can’t just pull over on the side of the road if something goes wrong.  When stuff goes wrong for us, people die.”

Then, there’s unscheduled maintenance.

“There’s no way to predict unscheduled maintenance,” Radford said, as it is, by nature, unexpected and unplanned. Unscheduled maintenance occurs when unforeseen events or circumstances render an aircraft potentially unsafe or inoperable. Before the AASF changed their processes, Radford said, maintainers were struggling to keep up with just  scheduled maintenance. “We had aircraft that would break and we had other aircraft that we needed to fly that were still generating scheduled maintenance so what was happening was we were concentrating on all of our scheduled maintenance and we weren’t fixing anything that was broken.”

To catch up, leadership implemented a one-month maintenance stand-down. Flights were halted which gave maintainers time to catch up on maintenance – scheduled and unscheduled – without incurring additional waves of maintenance requirements. Then, once the fleet was healthier, additional processes were put in place to keep it that way and allow the roots of change to take place. Part of the change was to move away from a reactive model and toward a more proactive one. Based on the flight schedule for each aircraft, scheduled maintenance is predictable, so leadership at the hangar built a schedule for maintenance that considered the flying demands put on each aircraft.

One of the Virginia National Guard’s UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters sits on the flight line at the state’s Army Aviation Support Facility in Sandston, Virginia. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti)

“We’ve adjusted the way we do business. We’ve refined processes and we’ve made significant efficiencies in terms of managing personnel and then how we do our job of aircraft maintenance,” said Byrd. “We’ve changed our flying practices where maintenance can be scheduled. It allows us to identify airframes, have them available to go fly and lets us focus on the maintenance at hand.”

The new schedule ensures that the aircraft are available when they’re needed and that there’s enough bank time – flight time available on an aircraft before maintenance is required – to complete their missions. The DA standard for bank time is 50 percent, and Virginia’s bank time currently sits above 60 percent.

Changes to the planning process went together with personnel changes in the hangar.

“We’ve restructured our hangar,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jennifer Gaulton, one of Virginia’s maintenance test pilots. “We put certain people in certain places and that helped facilitate these moving pieces.”

Those changes happened at every level, from the floor up.

“It’s the same mechanics that were here, it’s just asset management,” Radford said.

On the floor, they developed small teams of four with a team lead, according to Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jonathan Sigl, the facility’s production control officer. They made sure those teams were well-balanced, with more- and less-experienced personnel blended together, and they made each team responsible for four or five aircraft.

“A week prior we set the schedule,” Sigl said. The teams are told what’s going to fly and when, and then they know what each aircraft will require maintenance-wise based off that aircraft’s planned flight schedule. Then, Sigl said, he gets out of the way and lets the teams get to work.

“I’m not going to tell them when they need to do it, I’m just going to ensure that it gets done,” he said. “I can give them what I want and what I kind of want it to look like and they’ll be much more successful if they’re bought into the program.”

Taking care of the maintainers on the floor is a priority. Leaders at the hangar make sure they’re active participants in the planning and decision-making process and that their time is valued and protected.

Virginia National Guard Soldiers assigned to 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment support the Civil Air Patrol with familiarization flights on a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter Jan. 2, 2020, at Joint Base Langley-Eustis. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti)

“The important thing to remember is we’re protecting the maintainers, the wrench-turners, the guy that’s in the fight making the maintenance happen,” Byrd said.

Staff Sgt. Turner Welch, now a phase maintenance supervisor, has worked at the facility for a few years in various positions and says the new process has made for an improved work environment.

“For us it feels great, it releases the work load a little bit and we don’t have so much pressure on us,” Welch said. Reaching 100 percent FMC wasn’t just about internal changes. Virginia’s AASF receives support from the Theatre Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group in Groton, Connecticut, a higher-level maintenance hub whose support has been key.

“They’ve been extremely supportive. They understand how it works and we work extremely well together,” Taylor said, explaining that the TASM helps support heavier maintenance and supplies parts. The Connecticut TASM recently helped with a number of engine replacements. “Engines, even the paperwork, as far as documenting that, is huge, […] but they brought the team out and they were extremely efficient.”

Taylor said support from the National Guard Bureau’s aviation team was invaluable and together, with the right organizations, the right people and the right processes, it all clicked.

“You have all the people in the hangar who had the expertise, you get the operations in unison and you get your instructor pilots all working on the same team, you tie in the battalion, human resources, the budget team, then you pull in the TASM, then you get NGB Aviation tied in, you continue to develop the bench, stress the customer and service, and once you get it set up right – it runs mostly on auto-pilot,” Taylor said. 

While morale has improved at the facility – Taylor says you can feel and see it –

the effects of a more efficient and effective maintenance program resonate well beyond the walls of the hangar.

“Our pilots know that when they show up they’re going to have a good aircraft, they’re going to be able to go out and fly and they’re going be able to return home safely,” Byrd said. “Improved morale is spilling out, not just for the personnel on the floor turning wrenches, but it’s across the organization.”

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Shane Leipertz, battalion standardization pilot for 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, outlined aviation’s role in supporting ground maneuver elements and how their increased maintenance readiness allows them to better support those maneuver elements.

“During mission execution what we’re seeing now is an efficiently and properly resourced maintenance program that provides the maximum number of aircraft and availability on a consistent basis to be here to support, and thus increase total combat power and effectiveness,” Leipertz said.

As time moves forward and helicopter blades spin, 100 percent will be impossible to maintain. Scheduled and unscheduled maintenance will reduce the maintenance readiness level of the fleet. Modifications to modernize the aircraft are constant. 

“Just because you made 100 percent doesn’t mean you get a break,” Byrd explained. “You’re still in the fight.”

 Taylor says he’s incredibly proud of the team and the work that’s been put in to get to this point. “It takes all and everyone needs to be in unison to make it work this smooth. It takes a lot of hard work and adherence to the process.  With everyone doing their part together, it takes flight.” Taylor said.

One of the Virginia National Guard’s UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters sits on the flight line at the state’s Army Aviation Support Facility in Sandston, Virginia. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti)