Maintainers with Unmanned Patrol Squadron (VUP) 19 are saving money by using aircraft trainers built by the Triton program, as the Navy’s first unmanned squadron prepares to deploy with the MQ-4C Triton later this year.
Traditionally, a platform’s prime manufacturer is considered the source to develop its trainers—full-scale devices meant to emulate operational aircraft and systems for training purposes—as part of its overall production contract.
Looking for cost savings and avoidance, the Persistent Maritime Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Office used Naval Air Systems Command resources to produce instructional courses and six maintenance trainers concurrent with Triton, the Navy’s new persistent, high-altitude surveillance unmanned aircraft system (UAS).
The program contracted a veteran-owned small business comprised of retired Navy maintenance chiefs and first-class petty officers to align trainer requirements, develop courses and provide interim training to the fleet.
The program office used the capabilities of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division’s Simulation Division (SimDiv) to design and fabricate five of the trainers while Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division in Orlando, Florida, helped integrate and test the SimDiv trainers and developed the sixth trainer, a Multi-Purpose Reconfigurable Training System (MRTS3D®). The combined result is a robust turnkey maintenance training system tailored to Triton and enabling the Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training (CNATT) to meet C School pipeline training requirements.
Based on what similar devices have cost to produce and upgrade in the past, the Triton program estimates internal development of the six maintenance trainers and associated courses has resulted in significant savings, said Steve Groff, deputy lead for the Triton Training Systems team.
“These trainers cost a little more upfront, but the lifecycle costs are drastically decreased,” Groff said. “What we’re building is 100-percent government owned. We own all the software, all the trainers, all the parts—everything. Where, when a prime builds it, there’s proprietary software in there, so we’re always tied to the prime to go back to do software updates or update to the trainer.”
The team has delivered three of the trainers to CNATT detachment at Naval Base Ventura County in Point Mugu, California: a power plant trainer in August 2018, followed by a flight controls trainer in February 2019 and the MRTS3D® in April 2019.
The power plant trainer was first used last winter to support a pilot course for VUP-19 aviation machinist’s mate rate. Aviation electrician’s mate (AE) and aviation structural mechanic (AM) rates have also begun training on the power plant and flight controls trainers. Before the trainers arrived, VUP-19 maintainers received three weeks of classroom instruction. With the trainers, the AE and AM courses have expanded to give Sailors hands-on experience to supplement their academic course.
A landing gear trainer has completed development at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, and is being shipped to Point Mugu this summer. The team has also begun developing the final two devices—an integrated avionics trainer and forward-operating-base mission control station trainer.
The goal is to have maintainers leave for deployment “pretty much knowing their job inside and out on that airplane,” Groff said. “They know where everything is, which panels to pull, and they’ll have changed almost every type of component at least once.”
These training devices will also help save time.
“A weapons system, start to finish, is what the Navy needs to go out and execute our mission across the world. Having a training device that is exactly like what they’re going to see when they go out to the flight line will reduce the amount of time it takes to get a jet operational,” said Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Steele, Triton Training Systems lead.
Students spend approximately one-third of their time in the classroom and the rest working on the trainers, said AE2 RitaMarie Tarnowski, an AE instructor with CNATT Det. Point Mugu.
“The trainers are extremely interactive,” she said. “Everyone is impressed with the training. Students say they get more hands-on training here than they’ve gotten in their command so far, because on the trainers, they’re able to touch everything, remove everything and replace everything.”
Julia Roscher, a test engineer from the training division, visited the schoolhouse with her team in May to test the equipment on site and obtain feedback from operators, who will eventually deploy with Triton’s VUP 19. The team worked closely with both the CNATT detachment in Point Mugu and the Triton program throughout the development process to ensure they met their training requirements, she said.
“We made the decision to incorporate the CNATT instructors much earlier in the development process than is the custom and that has made them very smart on the system,” Steele said. “They were able to provide relevant feedback directly to the engineers on what worked well and what could be done better, which has helped streamline the developmental and test processes.”
“The Triton training team has done an outstanding job of managing their limited funding, salvaging two damaged surveillance UAS and leveraging lessons learned from other programs. They’ve laid the groundwork for the U.S. Navy’s future unmanned systems—this is ready, relevant learning at its finest—I’m really proud of their work,” said Capt. Dan Mackin, Triton program manager.
The Triton program also procured a Rolls-Royce AE 3007 engine from NASA, which flies a Global Hawk on Earth science missions, and an older, unwanted Air Force Global Hawk fuselage to use in the power plant and flight controls trainers, respectively.
In addition, the program completely refurbished an old apprentice school at Point Mugu into its Triton maintenance school. As part of the facilities modification, the school now houses a fiber optic wire connector lab and composite repair shop, which includes equipment such as curing ovens, deep freezers for hazardous material storage and four downdraft tables for grinding and sanding operations.
The Triton program has roughly 8,000 identified maintenance tasks. “It’s not feasible to train everything, so the five trainers were designed to train to about 2,000 of the maintenance requirements,” said Richard Johnson, SimDiv project lead.
“We capture 25 percent of all maintenance tasks required in the formal training environment between these five trainers,” said Earl Woodard, Maintenance Training Systems lead. “That may sound small, but those are the critical, repeatable tasks the front-end analysis identifies as what the maintainers are expected to encounter within a three-year operational tour.”
Just as important as building the trainers has been developing the courses, a unique challenge, because the squadron will be the Navy’s first to operate unmanned aircraft solely.
“All of our previous backgrounds involve the operation of the aircraft systems in the cockpit environment, which is the norm for manned aircraft,” Woodard said.
Triton is the Navy’s first major aviation platform in decades without a direct predecessor from which to draw information and people.
Johnson brought in two former Air Force fleet instructor maintainers to lend their expertise from working on Global Hawks. Though the two platforms are similar, there are still significant differences between the aircraft and the two services’ maintenance practices, he said.
“We’re building from scratch with no fleet knowledge of any kind. There’s no baseline here,” Groff said.
Absent such a foundation, the retired chiefs and first-class petty officers developing the courseware are using their collective decades of experience as maintainers and instructors—many of them taught in Navy schoolhouses—to inform the training material.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually fix the training shortfalls that bothered you when you were running the squadron shops,” Woodard said. “When they were coming up, it was handed to them as the system that existed. Now they have an opportunity to say, ‘What would I like to have gotten from the schoolhouse when I was in the shop?’”
VUP-19 is also the first Navy squadron to incorporate the information systems technician (IT) rate as part of its corps of aircraft maintainers.
“Normally, ITs are responsible for computer-based systems. We have to train Triton ITs now to work on an airplane and a forward-operating base. In a Triton squadron, they are an integral part of the maintenance organization,” he said.
Similarly, the course for VUP-19’s AEs are the longest of any rate in the squadron, when traditionally the AE class is one of the shortest at Navy maintenance schools.
“On Triton, AEs touch everything except payloads,” Woodard said.
“Because of all the electrical systems on Triton, our AE course is almost as long as the avionics course,” Groff said.
Ultimately, the Triton training team hopes its experience developing a maintenance training program for the Navy’s first unmanned squadron can end up benefiting future UAS programs and squadrons, beginning with the Navy’s next major unmanned platform, the MQ-25A Stingray.
Groff said his team is already in early discussions with the Unmanned Carrier Aviation Program Office, which oversees the Stingray program.
“We want to make sure that the things we did and the lessons learned transition to Stingray and the next UAS platforms,” he said. “The ‘should cost’ versus the ‘would cost’ are where we’re trying to help the Navy save money in the future.”
Jeff Newman is a staff writer for Naval Aviation News