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California depot saves Navy, Marines budgets by stretching life of F-18 jets

An F-18E Super Hornet prepares to land on the flight deck of USS Dwight D. Eisenhower on Aug. 23, 2016.

CHRIS CHURCH/STARS AND STRIPES

By CARL PRINE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 25, 2016

The slim officer scuttling inside the guts of a scorched Navy F/A-18 Hornet — grumbling about an “engine fire,” “warped bulkhead” and “destroyed tail” — is the center of gravity in a war the Pentagon never thought it would have to fight.

He’s overseeing surgery on a mangled strike fighter. Across the vast hangar at North Island’s Fleet Readiness Center Southwest and in the shops that orbit it are strewn the skeletons of 44 other strike fighters — about one out of every 13 Hornets in the Navy and Marine Corps arsenal.

If America wants to stay the dominant military power on the globe, especially as the military pivots toward Asia, Cmdr. Brett Ingle, 52, will have to revive these jets.

“We found another donor aircraft and turned it into a ‘Frankenfighter,’” said Ingle, a Valley Center native who has spent 33 years in the Navy, first as an enlisted mechanic and now as the production boss for 4,508 federal civil service workers, sailors and contractors.

A decade ago, the Navy likely would’ve junked a heavily damaged strike fighter near the end of its anticipated service life. But these days, every Hornet is precious.

Built to wreak havoc on enemy ships, missile batteries, radar installations and any fighters daring to dogfight them, America’s Hornets are aging badly.

When F-18s entered the fleet, the Pentagon estimated that a Hornet would spend about 6,000 hours in the air before getting scrapped.

Then America went to war — in Afghanistan and then Iraq — and the Hornet fleet spent 16 years running close air support missions, a job that has gradually been grinding out the service lives of the planes.

“We’ve flown the wings off these things. We've flown them at least twice as much as we anticipated, and it shows,” Navy Secretary Raymond “Ray” Mabus said during an exclusive interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune on Wednesday aboard the amphibious assault ship America.

Now the Navy is trying to keep each of its “legacy” Hornets flying for 10,000 hours.

And Mabus put the blame for this need to stretch the Hornets’ lifespan on what was supposed to start replacing the F-18 a decade ago — the Pentagon’s much-maligned, $379 billion Joint Strike Fighter program.

Launched in 1992, that project eventually produced the stealthy and lethal F-35 Lightning II, but it also has fallen victim to design flaws, software snafus and poor project oversight.

Deliveries of the Marines’ F-35Bs, which can take off vertically amid austere battlefield conditions, and the Navy’s F-35Cs built for aircraft carriers are about three years behind schedule.

The Marines have been hurt the most, with the Pentagon reporting that about half of their Hornets are incapable of deployment due to maintenance problem. And no new versions of the Corps’ second ground-attack workhorse, the AV-B Harrier II, have been built in 13 years.

“The Marines didn’t have a backup plan,” Mabus said. “The F-35B was their Plan B. When it slid, the problems started.”

The 2011 sequestration deal between the White House and Congress to shave federal spending didn’t help. It slashed military spending on procurement, maintenance and capital projects just when the Hornet needed the most aid.

“Sequestration meant a hiring freeze,” Mabus said. “Less money was coming in, so we lost money at the depots getting planes through. We got behind and it’s going to take us until 2019 to catch up, but we’re not going to put a pilot in those aircraft unless they’re safe.”

Mabus said the Hornets operating from aircraft carriers or flying over the skies of Iraq and Afghanistan are fine, as are the F-18s awaiting deployment during the next year — but the military must rest Hornets used for crucial pilot training, especially in the Corps.

That has led to concerns about eroding pilots’ capabilities.

The Navy asked Congress to purchase two advanced cousins of the Hornet — the F-18 E/F Super Hornet — this year and 14 more next year, but those jets also are aging faster than expected because they’ve picked up the Hornets’ slack. The Super Hornet is expensive as well — about $61 million each.

So fixing and refurbishing the Hornets became the “bridge to the Joint Strike Fighter,” said Navy spokesman Mike Furlano. “Sequestration forced us to find low-cost alternatives, and we did.”

To Furlano, FRC Southwest at North Island is one of the best-kept secrets in the Navy. Sprawling across 80 buildings and with an annual budget of about $500 million, the repair depot is designed to function like a business, charging the military services, foreign powers and other federal agencies like NASA to mend their airplanes and helicopters — without competing against defense contractors in the private sector.

But the Hornet takes priority, and it’s a weird plane with 20,000 problems.

“Hole quality,” said Ingles. “My biggest problem is hole quality on a fighter with 20,000 rivets.”

Hornets that rolled off the assembly line in the mid-1980s were largely hand-built, with workers punching fasteners in the panels and parts, not robots.

Today when crews strip down and reassemble the Hornet, they must painstakingly match the metal pieces like aluminum jigsaw puzzles — a chore that adds months to a plane’s rehab.

“That’s why we call our men and women ‘artisans,’” said Ingles the production boss. “They’re truly artists. They have to be.”

Because no one envisioned a Hornet would have to double its standard service life, spare parts for key sections of the plane were never stockpiled. Many key pieces were never even built.

The 200 workers inside Building 472 manufacture more than 19,000 widgets every year for all of the depot’s airplanes and helicopters, and the Hornets are marked “Priority I.”

“We’re the last stop in the Navy. We’re the place you go when you need a part,” said Gabriel Draguicevich, 51, a native of Argentina brought in to modernize the operation.

He was holding up Part Y-518, what’s called an aluminum “header former.” It’s like the shoulders of the jet. It’s installed behind the cockpit. Because only a few hundred of them are sought as replacements for the Hornets undergoing refurbishment, there’s no incentive for contractors to manufacture them.

Draguicevich is in the midst of a capital-improvement plan that buys, on average, about $12 million annually in best high-tech machinery on Earth. Neither he nor Ingle need more cash to get the job done.

“I need a third shift,” said Ingle.

Ingle is looking for a few good sheet metal workers, metalsmiths, inspectors and fuel cell mechanics to speed Hornets back to the fleet. He hired about 500 artisans last year — about 150 fewer than what was necessary.

Like the Hornets they fix, Ingle’s civilian workforce is aging. The depot struggles to overcome the attrition of experienced employees retiring or jumping to the private sector, where some highly skilled laborers can earn twice as much as they can as federal civil servants.

There’s too much red tape and it takes too long to hire promising employees — up to six months for a mechanic leaving the Navy or Marine Corps — and the high cost of living in San Diego makes it less competitive than other regions that pay about the same wages, Ingle said.

The starting pay for a sheet metal worker at the depot is about $23 per hour — less than $48,000 per year, according to federal wage scales.

The depot wants to run a regional wage study, part of a longer process that could double the paychecks of its workers and woo the best industrial talent to consider a federal civil service job, but it likely will take more than a year.

Trevor Roberts, a former Marine corporal, is all for that. A sheet metal journeyman poised for promotion to inspector, Roberts transitioned from the Black Knights of Marine Fighter Squadron 314 to North Island’s depot in 2014.

“It would be nice to have more,” said Roberts, 31. “The contractors make more than we do, but we have better benefits. What if we got better pay and benefits?”

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©2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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