News: Flight line factory: Dedicated artisans keep warbirds in flight
Story by Cpl. Tyler J. Bolken
Editor's note: This article is the fifth and final installment in a series that explains the many facets of MCAS Cherry Point and its role in supporting the warfighter while existing as a responsible member of the eastern North Carolina community.
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT – It’s a row of factory-like, red brick buildings and giant hangars that span the length of several city blocks on the southeastern edge of the air station. Inside, and on the adjacent flight line, the largest civilian industrial workforce in eastern North Carolina is hard at work.
Fleet Readiness Center East, the second largest tenant organization on Cherry Point, is a virtual army of artisans, engineers, logisticians and other experts who go about the business of keeping our military aircraft ready for war.
“Marine aviation wouldn’t survive without it,” says Gunnery Sgt. Joseph P. Polakowski, one of a mere 43 Marines meshed into FRC-East’s operation.
“It’s not like the car and truck factory you see on TV,” says Polakowski, a maintenance control chief and native of West Chester, Ohio, with more than five years of experience at FRC East. “We’re not building new aircraft; we’re not building new parts. We’re refurbishing what we have. Every helicopter and jet is different; there aren’t two alike.”
FRC East, with more than 3,500 civilian and contract employees, is one of eight Navy FRCs across the country and the only one commanded by a Marine. The other Marines here serve as liaisons of sorts for the many Marine aviation squadrons FRC East services, says Polakowski. Nearly all of the Marines are from different aviation job fields, from helicopter crew chiefs, to mechanics, to pilots. They are spread throughout the facility and assist in their areas of expertise.
“There is not one waste of Marine or space in this whole place,” says Gunnery Sgt. Vince Burgess as parts-hauling electric carts roll by through the building’s vast hangar bays and hallways and specialty shops. Burgess, an assistant V-22 Osprey program manager and native of Hyattsville, Md., adds, “It’s something to see. You have such a broad range of people working out here, making everything we do, day-to-day, easier.”
The majority of the FRC’s workload supports the Marine Corps, says Lt. Col. Dale E. Short, the FRC East director of operations and a native of Huntsville, Ala.
Named by Congress as a Vertical Lift Center of Excellence, FRC East maintains, repairs and overhauls virtually every weapons platform the Marine Corps flies, with a primary focus on vertical lift aircraft and components. Overall maintenance is provided for AV-8B Harriers, EA-6B Prowlers, V-22 Ospreys, AH-1W Cobras, UH-1N Hueys, CH-53E Super Stallions and KC-130J Hercules’. Since standing up more than six decades ago during World War II, FRC East has served the Marine Corps, serving as a catch-all when it comes to aviation maintenance. That service will continue into the future with the planned maintenance support for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the UH-1Y Venom and the AH-1Z Viper.
There are three levels of maintenance in Marine aviation, categorized by degrees of difficulty and diagnostics. The first level of maintenance is conducted in-house, within the squadron to which the aircraft is assigned. If the required maintenance is unable to be completed there, Marine aviation logistics support squadrons take over. Finally, there is depot level maintenance at the FRCs, which can break the aircraft down to the last bolt if need be.
The majority of the maintenance here is done per mandatory maintenance schedules required by naval regulations. But the very nature of military operations with fleets of aging aircraft means not all work here is dictated by routine scheduling. And you also have to factor in war itself.
When news broke about six Harriers being destroyed in Afghanistan Sept. 16, FRC East was notified that replacement aircraft would be needed sooner than expected. A few of these aircraft, which were sourced from another AV-8 squadron, required depot level repairs. FRC East had staff at the squadron the next morning.
FRC East’s mission statement reads “Service to the Fleet,” with a primary goal to support the warfighter. “We are intimately connected with the Marine Corps’ mission and training requirements,” says Short. “We understand, prioritize and focus on meeting deadlines.”
The process starts when the Fleet calls FRC East’s customer service center. Planners and estimators then evaluate the scope of repairs needed, estimate repair time, what kind of specialists are needed and estimate repair costs. It can be a lengthy process, says Short. “But due to the way we’re organized, we’re tied very tightly to not only the enduring fleet requirements, but the emerging high priority requirements as well.”
One of FRC East’s valuable tools is its Fleet Support Teams made up with artisans and engineers who can typically diagnose and troubleshoot problems on the spot. All civilians, the teams are usually the first sent out. A squadron can request them at anytime, anywhere – locally or in a combat zone.
“We can send a body overseas and provide support globally within 72 hours,” says Short. “It’s a small but very important piece of what we do.”
Annually, the FRC East repairs, restores, upgrades and overhauls more than 115 aircraft. Though unable to physically work on the aircraft, the Marines are able to communicate the conditions to the FRC East staff and perform tests to ensure full mission capability when the aircraft goes back to the fleet.
And as the fleet continues to conduct its many missions around the globe, FRC East will continue to provide the highest level and quality of maintenance possible.