Too Many Grounded Aircraft Put a Crimp on Marine Operations

By Sandra I. Erwin

At a time when demand for Marine aviation units is growing, the Corps is struggling to maintain and repair aircraft. Approximately 19 percent of the aviation inventory — or 158 aircraft — currently is grounded.

That number is “way too high,” said Lt. Gen. Jon M. Davis, Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation.

If he were the CEO of a commercial airline with 158 airplanes out of service, he said, “I probably would be fired.”

Davis has a plan to improve the health of the fleet, but it will take several years to get all those aircraft back in service, he said May 19 during a meeting with reporters.

Aviation readiness is “what I spend most of my time thinking about,” he said.

The Marine Corps needs about $320 million to fix all 158 aircraft. Davis said Congress likely will approve enough funds to return 26  back to service in 2016.

The 158 grounded aircraft are a mix of heavy lift helicopters, V-22 Ospreys, attack helicopters, F/A-18 fighters and Harrier short-takeoff vertical landing attack warplanes. Some are sitting at maintenance depots waiting for missing parts. Others are in unit flight lines awaiting repairs. In many units, especially those that fly the V-22 Osprey, there are not enough maintainers to keep up with the workload.

“This impacts our ability to generate the readiness numbers we need,” Davis said.

The Marine Corps has launched several efforts to increase aviation readiness, he said. Some fleets will see improving numbers within a year and a half, but others will take more than four years to turn around. One immediate fix will be to allocate enough funds to buy spare parts. Other initiatives like training more maintenance crews take more time.

Davis said returning more aircraft to combat duty is an imperative not only because of the growing demand for airlift and close-air support, but also for financial reasons. A $320 million bill to put 158 aircraft back in the air is reasonable considering that is $8.4 billion worth of inventory, he said. “It drives me crazy to have 158 airplanes that are perfectly good airplanes that we’re not flying right now that we could be flying for relatively little investment on the dollar.”

To expedite repairs, Davis is pushing for changes in how aviation forces are supported in the field. The V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor has one of the lowest readiness ratings in the Marine Corps fleet but that could be quickly reversed if Marines in the field were allowed to fix prop rotors, for instance. Under the current protocol, when rotor blades are damaged, the aircraft are returned to the manufacturer or to depots.

“Rotor blades get nicked, and we don’t have the ability to repair those at the local level. I have to send them back to the factory,” said Davis. “I want to change that,” he added. “A lot of times Marines can fix them right on the airplane. … We want to get our Marines trained to do repairs on the flight line to increase our readiness.”

Davis last summer recruited a team of retired admirals and generals to probe Marine aircraft maintenance practices and suggest ways to improve them. The group came up with 84 recommendations on what the Corps should be doing differently. “We’re doing all 84,” Davis said. They include allowing maintenance crews to spend more time actually working on airplanes, adopting new training standards and increasing the ranks of qualified leaders who can train enlisted maintainers.

Davis expects a new report June 8 on how to improve the readiness of the CH-53E heavy lift helicopter fleet, which also has one of the lowest availability ratings.

There is no indication so far that recent deadly aviation mishaps — a UH-1Y Huey helicopter crash in Nepal May 12 and an Osprey crash in Hawaii May 17 — were the result of maintenance problems.

Davis said he was heartbroken by the back-to-back crashes, both as the father of two Marine aviators and as the leader of Marine aviation. Both the Huey and the Osprey fleets will continue to fly, Davis said, though he declined to comment on the mishaps because they are still under investigation.

Topics: Aviation, Expeditionary Warfare, Logistics

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