Fleet Readiness Center Southwest: A Century of Naval Aviation Excellence

In 1911, Glenn Curtiss made the first successful seaplane flight off the coast of North Island in the San Diego Bay. Followed in 1912 by the establishment of an aviation camp for the Navy, the entire Navy aviation squad of four officers and three planes made North Island home. It quickly became apparent that where there were planes that landed at sea, there would be a need for maintenance and repair. In 1917, the island was officially obtained by the government as a joint Army/Navy Air Service station and in 1919 the Overhaul and Repair Department was officially established. This facility, working under several names over the century, has been an important center for naval aircraft repair ever since.

Once described by the Spanish explorers in 1542 as “covered with lemonade berry and mahogany trees,” the island is now dotted with jet fighters, helicopters, and repair facilities. Dedicated as Fleet Readiness Center Southwest (FRCSW) in 2006, the facility employs approximately 3,500 civilians and 900 military personnel. Comprising 358 acres with over 80 buildings, FRCSW is one of the largest aerospace employers in San Diego County.

In the early days, flying was a perilous job. Of the original 48 pilots on North Island, 25% were killed in “flying boat” accidents due to mechanical failures or poor judgments. Today, flying is nowhere near as dangerous, but the need to maintain, repair, and sustain aircraft is a vital component of a successful naval aviation program.

FRCSW is the first aviation Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility established in Department of Defence (DoD) making the command the birthplace of naval aviation maintenance. FRCSW provides world-class support to Navy and Marine Corps tactical, logistical, and rotary wing aircraft and their components by utilizing state-of-the-art management systems. To provide maintenance excellence where it’s most needed, FRCSW maintains field sites at Naval Base Ventura County – Point Mugu, CA; Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and MCAS Miramar in CA, MCAS Yuma, AZ; MCAS Kaneohe Bay, HI; NAS Whidbey Island, WA; NAS Lemoore, CA; NAS Fallon, NV; Cannon Air Force Base, NM; and Air Force bases in Okinawa and Iwakuni, Japan.

Importance of FRCSW to the U.S. Navy and world

FRCSW performs MRO services on Navy and Marine Corps aircraft including the F/A-18 Hornet fighter, E-2C and E-2D Hawkeye advanced warning/command and control aircraft, C-2A Greyhound carrier onboard delivery cargo aircraft, AV-8B Harrier V/ STOL fighter, MV/CV-22 Osprey, F-35B Lightning MQ-4 Triton, MQ-8 Fire Scout, H-60 Seahawk, H-53 Super Stallion, AH-1 Super Cobra, and UH-1 Super Huey helicopters. The command also sends teams of maintenance personnel around the world to apply their talents onboard Navy aircraft carriers.

“FRCSW spearheaded the center barrel replacement,” (a unique capability designed, engineered, and built at the command for the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet) says Michael Furlano, FRCSW Public Affairs Officer. “The legacy F/A-18s were experiencing a lot of wear and tear on their mid-section where the wings and landing gear attach. That part of the aircraft takes the brunt of the force from the hard nature of carrier landings. In the early 1990s, one of the Navy’s fleet of F/A-18 aircraft experienced a crash at just 200 flight hours. Rather than spend $50 million on a new aircraft, our artisans decided to remove and replace the center barrel, at a cost of approximately $3-5 million. Now we can get some of the aircraft over the 10,000 hour threshold. This was an innovative answer that our maintainers came up with.”

Extending the life of aircraft is an imperative that former Secretary of Defense Mattis championed. “We have to win the fight, and to win it, we have to have equipment on the field,” said Martin Ahmad, Deputy Commander, Fleet Readiness Center (COMFRC) in an April 2018 issue of Naval Aviation News. “To have equipment on the field, we have to get it repaired.”

Answers to overcome challenges

Because the labor market has been strong and skills necessary to repair and overhaul aircraft are not being taught in many educational environments, FRCSW has joined the other FRCs around the country to develop an apprenticeship program to teach maintainers exactly what they need to know. This effort will create a pipeline of trained and productive artisans. The program is a joint effort with local community colleges, and utilizing a Department of Labor approved curriculum, apprentices will receive federal pay and be trained in up to 12 aviation maintenance trades.

“Our maintainers are true artisans,” says Furlano. “Our aircraft, until recently, were built by hand and they are true works of art. Their skills with metal are impressive. It’s hard to find that kind of talent these days, which is why we now have an apprenticeship program modeled after the ship side of the Navy.”

It appears that at FRCSW, efforts to increase productivity and utilization of innovative technology and planning are paying off. Recently, the command has instituted a new effort aimed at improving readiness. This effort has been dubbed the Naval Sustainment System (NSS) and it has helped to reduce Issue Priority Group 1 items (IPG1s) by 35% while also increasing the hydraulic shop and landing gear shop production by 61% and 21%, respectively.

Another hurdle that FRCSW faces is the age of its infrastructure. Even though aviation repair has made giant strides over the past 100 years, much of the infrastructure hasn’t kept up. Some hangars are the original structures built in 1918. Even some of the power sources at FRCSW go back to 1945, which results in not being able to meet current power requirements for maintenance on current weapons systems. The obsolescence issue is critical. The age of equipment and other materials as well as the buildings themselves negatively impacts the command’s ability to support their mission.

The Department of the Navy has made a commitment to invest to upgrade shipyards and aviation repair facilities. With legacy weapons systems and equipment needing to last longer and new acquisitions that require maintenance work that won’t conform to the current infrastructure, FRCSW is looking forward to modernization efforts on the near horizon.

There are multiple Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) planned that will upgrade systems, machinery, and monitoring. Another priority will be construction projects to upgrade shops, hangars, engineering facilities, and storage. The command is utilizing its full CIP budget as well as any funds directly from Congress in order to improve sustainment, restoration, and modernization efforts to upgrade waste storage, fire protection, ventilation, and other health and safety measures.

Festivities to mark 100 years

Where once North Island Naval Air Station was a flat isthmus of land with a makeshift runway, a haybarn turned into a hangar, a few planes (some purchased from the Wright Brothers), wooden buildings, tents for barracks, and Marine Corps dug latrines, today the facility can boast some of the best maintainers keeping critical aircraft defending our nation.

In July, they will officially recognize the 100th Celebration of Aviation Maintenance in a ceremony with keynote speakers and proclamations. But throughout the year, commemorative activities will take place all over the area such as a display at the San Diego Public Library, an employee appreciation festivity, and hopefully an event on the historic aircraft carrier the USS Midway that is now a museum.

“For a hundred years this facility has been dedicated to providing the U.S. Navy with the safest and most productive air fleet in the military,” says Furlano. “We have maintenance artisans here who are devoted to their mission of aircraft readiness. FRCSW is a true national treasure.”

CTMA Program helps FRCSW and all other Fleet Readiness Centers with integrated maintenance platform

Logistics technology is fast becoming one of the most important areas for manufacturing companies to improve safety and value for merchandise sold to the general public. Following suit, NAVAIR has established the Aviation Logistics Environment (ALE), which is their information technology solution that delivers full lifecycle weapon system logistics across the entire Fleet Readiness Center Command (COMFRC).

The current state of the Fleet Scheduled Maintenance execution is resulting in poor material condition of aircraft and excessive maintenance man-hours (MMHs) expended above the resourced MMHs, as the Navy Manpower Analysis Center (NAVMAC) credits only Maintenance Requirement Card (MRC) deck requirements for resourcing and poor reliability-centered maintenance (RCM) feedback from execution to analysis which as a system are all contributing factors to increasing Not Mission Capable Maintenance (NMCM) rates at each Type/ Model/Series (T/M/S) level.

Leveraging the benefits of the CTMA Program, COMFRC is developing a Program Lifecycle Management Program (PLM) with industry participant Siemens that will enable the following for all FRCs:

  • Enterprise services and infrastructure
  • Decision support and analysis
  • Tactical maintenance and operations
  • Product lifecycle management and product data management

When widely adopted, DoD ultimately stands to benefit from PLM implementation through a reduced maintenance burden to achieve the required levels of equipment availability. This translates into supply, maintenance management, and touch labor reductions. These kinds of costs savings and efficiency improvements are an example of how the CTMA Program can impact maintenance and sustainment activities.