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Upgrades for fighters

Oct. 29, 2013 - 10:56AM   |  
Heritage flight
F-15: Radar upgrades and more. (Staff Sgt. Mike Meares/U.S. Air Force)
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Each maintainer loves his jet the most, and for the maintainers of the 4th Fighter Wing, itís the Strike Eagle.

ďItís the most called upon jet in the Air Force,Ē said Staff Sgt. Trever Edwards, a dedicated crew chief with the 4th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. ďItís reliable; it gets the pilots home safe. ... Itís the most efficient and best airplane. Itís the most combat capable jet that the Air Force has.Ē

And that has come on the backs of the maintainers turning the wrenches on the jet. At an average age of 21.4 years, the Strike Eagle is among the younger jets in the Air Forceís fleet, but there have still been growing issues.

The Air Force is upgrading its fourth-generation fighter fleet to keep the aging F-15s, F-16s and A-10s in the air while the delayed F-35 program still works to come online with the target of initial operating capability by 2016.

The upgrades include new avionics, wings and service life extensions for the jets while pilots are still learning to fly the F-35.

In September,the Air Force announced a $212 million contract for 56 replacement wings for the A-10 Thunderbolt II. Boeing is on contract for up to 242 wings for the A-10, with the overall goal to improve the mission availability of A-10s by an estimated 4 percent, up from 2013ís rate of 75.2 percent.Boeing said the replacements are expected to save an estimated $1.3 billion in maintenance costs over the next 30 years.

The Air Force flies 343 A-10s, which have been in service since 1977. The F-35 is expected to take over the close air support role of the A-10, and the service has been targeting A-10 squadrons for retirement as soon as 2016. The wing upgrades are expected to keep the A-10 fleet flying into 2035.

The Air Forceís aging F-15 fleet, both Eagles and Strike Eagles, are also slated for upgrades to keep them flying in both the air superiority roles of the F-15C/D and strike role of the F-15E. The service will add a new electronically scanned array radar for 150 of the 214 C models, a beyond-line-of-sight and secure line-of-sight radio updates on 177 C models through fiscal 2016, and sniper advanced targeting pod integration on 177 C models. The Air Force will add new radars, radios and helmets, along with structural integrity tests for the F-15E fleet to double the life of the aircraft, which has been in service since 1989.

In fiscal 2015, the Air Force is slated to begin a full-scale durability test of F-16s, in which the jet will be physically shaken to find stress points and identify potential problems. Additionally, the Air Force will install new electronics, called the combat avionics programmed extension suite.

The F-16s current service life is 8,000 flight hours, and the extension program plans to stretch that to 10,000 to 12,000 hours, according to Air Combat Command.

The serviceís newest operational fighter, the F-22, in fiscal 2013, saw a break rate of 11.2 percent, with about 63 percent of those aircraft being fixed within 12 hours. However, despite the average age of the fleet being less than six years, more than 11 percent of the Raptors saw time in depots in 2013.

At Seymour Johnson, airmen have established new training to teach airmen to more quickly identify problems that are becoming more common and identify overall trends with their jets.

On the electrical side, there has been an increase in chaffing that could affect the planeís avionics. If a problem is spotted, the airmen contact quality assurance officials and begin a 10 percent inspection on base. If multiple aircraft have the same issue, they address the whole fleet, said Staff Sgt. Nathan Thompson, an electrical environmental craftsman with the 4th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.

In addition to the chaffing, airmen who work on the F-15Es have seen an increase in metal and wire repair issues. They are modifying parts, such as rewiring the fuel starter system and adding new components to the video recorder system.

All of the work, while stressful, is important to keep the Strike Eagle flying and allow it to put bombs on target when needed in Afghanistan.

ďIn its 25-year history, for it to still be utilized so heavily by combatant commanders, itís a true testament to the maintainers,Ē Turnipseed said.

Next: Reviewing bomber cycles

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