The Sailors of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 22 initially were skeptical when commercial aviation consultants arrived last fall to help improve maintenance procedures as part of the Naval Sustainment System’s (NSS) overall reform efforts.
Unsure whether such consultation would take the form of strict directives or fluid suggestions, the “Fighting Redcocks” soon realized the outsiders were merely there to unlock their own intuition.
“What they really did is facilitate change,” VFA-22 Commanding Officer Cmdr. Bill Frank said. “They were a catalyst for us. They ingrained themselves in our daily practices, asked a lot of questions and we garnered a lot of great information from them.”
Before long, the squadron had begun instituting changes as the first Navy squadron to undergo operational-level, or O-level, maintenance reform.
“A lot of these changes, these ideas, were already inherent in the people that have been in the business for years and years, and even some of our most junior Sailors,” Frank said. “A lot of good conversations happened just from asking, why? Why do we do things this way? What would you do differently? Why don’t you do it that way?”
When considering where to first apply its reforms, the squadron zeroed in on maintenance inspections known as “specials,” which occur at various intervals and have different focuses. The most frequent occurs every 84-days and is largely a corrosion inspection, while the 728-day special includes inspection of complex systems such as ejection seats, VFA-22 Maintenance Officer Lt. Cmdr. Billy Mohr said.
“It’s like taking your car in for an oil change,” he said. “They are scheduled, regular inspections on the preventative side versus the reactive side, where we can plan for it ahead of time, and bring jets into the hangar and hopefully get them out within the week and back in the flight schedule.”
Mohr said the squadron initially emphasized the 84-day inspection simply because it occurs most often.
“If we have a full complement of 12 jets, ideally we would be doing one of those every week,” he added.
An 84-day special is essentially a “look” inspection, where Sailors are searching the aircraft for corrosion, and is supposed to take three days. Prior to the reform effort, the inspections were taking as many as 10 days to complete.
“We want to get that look phase done, because then it gives us more time to turn it back over to the corrosion specialists and give them more time to work on the corrosion,” Frank said.
The squadron made changes and proved that the three-day timeline was realistic, leadership said. Frank noted that the decreased inspection times all stem from efficiency—the actual process for conducting the inspection remains unchanged.
“We’re not skipping anything. We didn’t cut out anything. We didn’t develop some new train of thought,” he said. “We just found ways to get back to the basics and be efficient—having the right people at the right time, having the right part there at the right time, having your tools and materials available and close to you to execute, so you don’t have to go back and forth.”
Frank likened the reform to organizing your tools and planning a materials list before beginning work on a home improvement project. Without such preparation, you could end up wasting time searching for tools or making multiple trips to the hardware store, ultimately adding days to your project timeline, he said.
The Reform ‘Jewel’
Of the changes made, squadron leadership identified the most significant as the assignment of crew leads to each F/A-18E-F Super Hornet that is down for maintenance. Previously, the maintenance desk chief oversaw all 10-to-12 aircraft in the squadron’s hangar.
Culled from the ranks of first- and second-class petty officers, the crew leads are the “jewel” of the entire reform effort, Frank said.
“It has empowered those first and second classes to start acting like chiefs or officers,” he said. “We’re short on those people, so we need those junior personnel, who I believe are capable of it, to now start to feel empowered to act like those supervisors.”
“Being a crew lead and being a second class, when they originally wanted it as a first-class billet, it means a lot,” said Aviation Electrician’s Mate 2nd Class Michaela Zadra, a member of VFA-22’s quality assurance division. “And other second classes, besides myself, have had this opportunity as well, and that really shows how our leadership has entrusted us to do that.”
The sense of ownership that comes with being a crew lead has “changed the culture dramatically,” said Aviation Structural Mechanic Safety Equipment 1st Class Preston Clary, VFA-22’s quality assurance leading petty officer. “First of all, they don’t just pick someone; we volunteer to take on that responsibility, and we want to make sure it succeeds because it’s our name on it. If this fails, it’s on me.”
Parts Cage, Overhauled Spaces
To Lt. Michael Loomis, VFA-22’s maintenance material control officer, after the crew leads, the most significant change has been the establishment of a centralized parts cage for systems and components, especially those that are repairable but awaiting parts. Previously those components, known as AWPs, would often end up back in the various repair shops, where they had a tendency to be pilfered for parts or lost altogether, Loomis said.
“Maintenance guys are not logisticians. We don’t count and control very well. We fix, destroy and fix again, right? My logistics specialists are the experts of understanding what we’ve got, what we need, how to replenish it, how to keep it stocked, how to control it, all that stuff,” he said. “So we took everything out of the shops and we have it in a centrally located AWP locker in the cage. That, in my opinion, needs to be a policy change.”
Though not as significant a change as the crew leads or parts cage, an overhaul and general beautification of the squadron’s maintenance control room has also contributed to overall squadron morale, Loomis said.
In addition to giving the room a new, bright paint job, the maintenance desk was moved back to open up the space and make it feel less cramped. Status boards went up for each crew lead to provide updates on their aircraft.
“There has always been pride from within, but now outside people walk in and they see evident pride in this squadron, starting with maintenance control,” Loomis said, emphasizing renovations would not have been possible without support from Frank, who signed off pulling a handful of maintainers off the flight line to paint, even though it meant a brief slowdown in maintenance.
“We’ve always wanted to make our buildings better and our spaces better, but we’ve always prioritized planes, planes, planes over the shops because we just lack the manpower to do both,” Loomis said. “However, we had a good opportunity where we’re able to slow down maintenance, and I had full support from the skipper to prioritize the transformation process.”
‘Go for It’
Elsewhere at Naval Air Station (NAS) Lemoore, VFA-122 followed the lead set by the Fighting Redcocks and began instituting similar changes in January (see page 40). As of March, reform was rolling out to VFA-94 and 113, with squadrons stationed at NAS Oceana, Virginia, set to be next.
For other squadrons interested in implementing some reforms of their own, Frank has a simple recommendation: “Don’t wait.”
“You have the ideas, you have the people. You’ve got the experts inherent in your commands. It’s just fostering an environment that allows them to execute and do that,” he said. “What [the consultants] did is open our eyes to ideas that a lot of our guys already had, and that’s terrific, but as for other squadrons—you don’t need to wait for them. You can do it today.”
Jeff Newman is a staff writer for Naval Aviation News.