by DAVID AXE
In November 2007, a Missouri Air National Guard F-15 fighter broke apart in flight and crashed, injuring the pilot. The Air Force grounded all 600 of its F-15s until it could inspect and repair them. The work was done at the Air Logistics Center at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, where 8,000 highly skilled workers refurbish ancient F-15s, C-130s and C-5s. Deep maintenance is becoming more and more important, as new planes are being bought too slowly to rejuvenate the fleet.
Air Force Magazine reporter Marc Schanz dropped in at the ALC to check out what he called a “nightmarish” scenario:
From re-engineering obsolete parts to retooling avionics, technicians across the 2,200-acre complex are tackling problems rarely, if ever, faced before. [Keith] Gilstrap, a former F-15 crew chief, said the fighter fleet looks older and older every time a new airframe arrives and gets cracked open. “The thing is, the airframe is fundamentally sound,” he explained, next to the midsection of an F-15E. “You just have to remember, you have to keep a close track of where stress and deterioration is happening.”
No fighter category better embodies the maintenance challenge than the F-15 fleet — whose average age is pushing north of 26 years. Depot workers routinely find problems in the rudder controls during operations checks, increased wear and tear on the vertical stabilizers, and significant deterioration in the electrical wiring of the rear tail assembly.
To make up for reduced numbers of F-22s and delays to the follow-on F-35, the Air Force wants to upgrade 180 F-15Cs to the so-called “Golden Eagle” standard, with new radars and rebuilt structures. That work is being done at Robins.
Gilstrap anticipated each effort — where workers will strip out all old wiring components from the aircraft and put in new wiring harnesses — to take about 195 days. While the largest feature of the upgrade is the installation of new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, a string of structural replacements will also go into each fighter eventually, including ribbing and parts of the flight-control system. New harnesses will help to get the aircraft back to their squadrons sooner.
“We’re basically rebuilding these aircraft when they come in,” said Robert Riggin, an F-15 A Flight chief. “We’re going to fill up a lot of boxes with old wiring harnesses, but the end result is going to be a far better aircraft.”
(Photo: David Axe)