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What we are doing about the crisis in aircraft maintenance


A few months ago I took a slight detour from my normal blog posts to address a mandate from the Secretary of Defense[SECDEF], James Mattis.

In that mandate, SECDEF directed F-16, F-35, F-22 and F-18s to achieve a ready state of 80%. Translated for aviators and maintainers, that's an 80% MC rate. No easy feat, however an attainable and pragmatic goal given proper resources and time. SECDEF directed compliance with the readiness standard by the end of FY19 [October 2019]. Like many, I believed that timeline would translate to an unbearable work environment for the average aircraft maintainer.

I was wrong... and right.

What I learned from countless conversations and interviews from front line supervisors in the field was surprising.

I discovered that in a small amount of units, leadership was largely ignoring the mandate. Weekend duty and long shifts were still driven by the same schedule demand as before the mandate. However, there didn't appear to be any stat chasing. I believe a handful of commanders and Chiefs realized pushing for the mandate would decimate their people and families; and in the end would cause greater harm to readiness than to 'fall short' of the readiness requirement. I would like nothing more than to call out those leaders, but I don't want to draw attention to their unit and destroy their fragile situation. So if you're in one of those unit's know that your leadership are actively sacrificing their careers to take care of you.

Conversely, I also found the same tired cowardice that permeates the farthest corners of the Air Force. This mandate is the exact motivation selfish, careerist managers have been waiting for. A perceived unattainable goal, that through their hard-nosed style could manifest as a smorgasbord of EPR bullets rife with quantification. All of this without any care or concern for the people that work for them. In a lot of units weekend duty is driven almost exclusively by the FMC rate.

You see stat chasing has always been a thing in aircraft maintenance. Sometimes you get someone to swat down the idea, but it always creeps back in. People justify it that, by 'paying attention' to the stats you increase efficiency.

Nah.

If you focus on taking care of your people, and remove arbitrary or superficial obstacles you will drive efficiency. The stats will naturally improve. But that's the hard way right?
If you don't have the leadership toolbox to grow an organization, the next best thing is to chase stats and that's where most units are in the Air Force.

Many units with partially mission capable [PMC] jets were falsely reported as fully mission capable. Often in combat unit's, combat systems were inoperative but leadership was reporting the jets were combat ready. I asked a few people why they thought it was happening. One person responded 'This place is a dumpster fire', with the implication that competence and integrity were lost on unit leadership. He couldn't tell if the production subject matter experts didn't understand how to properly report PMC jets or they were hiding these conditions to pad their numbers. I'm not sure what's worse, stupidity or dishonesty?

In many units leave requests are being denied. There are times when it is a necessary evil but in some units denying leave is the standard response and the individual requesting leave has to fight for an exception to the unwritten policy. It's as if we are squeezing every last ounce from our people because we know they are going to leave us anyway.

Another individual, at another duty station stated his phase schedule for FY19 increased by almost 13%, however he didn't have the manning for 24 hour coverage and of the manning he did have 75% of his 7 levels weren't qualified.

Because that's the dirty secret isn't it?

Just like the incompetent or dishonest managers falsely report their aircraft readiness, often training records are pencil whipped to falsify a technician's experience in order to secure them Red X certifications. Is there any wonder jets are taking longer to fix? We are literally stacking our manning deck against ourselves, dealing out a losing hand, then punishing the fucking cards!

So a phase dock manned at only 25% of experienced 7 levels is being asked to increase it's output by 13%. What do you think the quality of those inspections will be? Oh and that 25% doesn't account for leave, training, appointments, etc. So even the 25% is inflated.

At another unit the most experienced avionics 7 level is unavailable for the primary mission because they are assigned to the demo team. Does that seem like a good use of one of your maintenance resources? Nope.

The absolute resounding message I heard back was that the experienced technicians are burned out. Are we surprised? Every so often the Air Force either guts maintenance experience, guts maintenance numbers or sometimes both. Then, they flood the career field with brand new inexperienced 3 levels that have to sink or swim almost immediately because the experienced technicians don't have the supervisory bandwidth to actually grow them. This mandate just being the most recent mechanism to assure our future maintainers are less prepared than ever.

If you look at the big picture it's an issue of parts, experience and manning. That's what you're going to read in almost every other article. But what everyone who hasn't been in maintenance doesn't realize is what this impoverished climate has created: A completely broken culture, save for a few dwindling isolated pockets of leadership.

When units are resource poor for prolonged periods it is a breeding ground of careerist yes-men. The servant leaders are ground to a fine pulp and eventually leave for greener pastures. In so doing, they shift the balance towards toxicity.

It's not just one big thing. It's a series of small, immoral norms that slowly destroy a unit from the inside out. Focusing on appearance over substance [which is precisely what this mandate and it's associated time frame will do]. Rewarding cowards that support every whim or idea from senior leaders without any critical analysis.

Have we all forgotten that not 3 years ago we were on the verge of destroying 20,000+ SSgt's careers over an arbitrary and completely useless Distance Learning PME. We haven't purged that culture, we just have a strong CMSAF that turned off the stupidity at the highest level. But we still have the same leaders that shoved Course 15 down their people's throats while towing the company line and guilting the backbone of the Air Force to knock out this 'easy PME.'

The only logical conclusion is that Secretary Mattis just doesn't understand the underlying culture in the services; and more specifically in aircraft maintenance. This mandate would be difficult but achievable in healthy organizations. The stark reality is a healthy organization is the absolute exception not the norm.

Recently, the Air Force Times wrote an article about this 80% mandate with a focus on reactions from the field and opinions of military brain trusts and think tanks.

One such military authority is John "JV" Venable, a retired Viper driver that elected to provide some keen insight to set us maintainers straight.

In the article JV states:

   'Mattis is right to demand the services reach mission-capable rates of 80 percent, he said. The Air Force would never get past the current “laissez-faire style” of maintenance expectations if Mattis didn’t put it on the table.'

He goes on to say:

  'The manpower is there, Venable said, even if the skill levels aren’t properly balanced. They’re going to have to work longer hours, he acknowledged.'

I'll begin by saying that this is why we don't let stick actuators run maintenance units anymore. I'll follow it with I think JV actually has a very insightful take on flying ops issues as I read in his article here.

I would invite Mr. Venable to stick to his area of expertise, because clearly maintenance is as foreign to him as the youngest and greenest B-course FNG. Perhaps JV developed his astronomical maintenance expectations leading the Thunderbirds in the early 2000s. When manning was better and more experienced. Where he led a unit that hand picked every single maintainer and they were always manned 100%. I can begin to see where his expectations of the servant class got so high.

If he thinks maintenance has been laissez-faire for the past few years perhaps he should remove a center pedestal and some rudder pedals to chase an asinine delayed discrepancy. Or spend his night upside down in a cockpit hunting for a pencil that the pilot was 'pretty sure' he dropped. Or maybe he would like to remove and install a JFS so hot that the petrolatum won't hold the seal in so he has to sit and stare at the exposed ADG, waiting for the JFS to cool down enough to continue troubleshooting.

JV continues:

  'This is a huge marker, and we need to step up to that line, he said. I believe it’s realistic, and I believe it’s going to take a Herculean effort to get there.'

Forgive my stupidity because I'm a maintainer. I thought by definition Herculean and realistic weren't compatible. 

This is the problem folks. People that do not know maintenance are driving our service branches. They don't get it, because people below them simply won't tell them.

So what does maintenance really need?

They need everyone to focus all available resources to support them. What would that look like?


  • No more honor guard commitment.
  • BAS for dorm airmen.
  • PME deferrments or waivers[gasp!]
  • Off shift support from finance, medical, orderly room.
  • Meat gazer exemptions [however, they are still required to be meat gazed]
  • Duty day PT time 
  • If you can't afford duty day PT time, blanket PT exemptions.
  • Collaborative QA instead of oppositional
  • No more demo teams
  • No more air shows
  • No more mandatory day of volunteering
  • No more flippant ops cross country excursions
The short answer? If it doesn't directly affect sortie production, it is thereby optional and should be relegated to the 'not fucking now' pile.

Whats frustrating about this list, is these are things maintainers have been saying [in one form or another] for about 8 years. This isn't the typical maintainers complaining for the sake of complaining; these are things that have to be turned off if you want to avoid driving your maintainers to suicide. 

Every time there is a resiliency briefing every maintainer groans and rolls their eyes. We don't need more resiliency, we need the people teaching us resiliency to actually make our lives better; not teach us how to properly survive eating shit.

It's hard to believe these things still have to be said. But I beg of you, if you can affect change in the maintenance community, do it! Push aside all the ancillary tasks that don't add to the mission. Make the difficult decisions. Not only for your people's sake, but because in the end doing so will increase fighter readiness.

Be sure to follow 20 Years Done on Facebook and comment on your experience in aircraft maintenance.

Correction: Previously this article stated the 'readiness mandate' from SECDEF was the fleet to achieve an FMC status, however I have received information that the mandate is only to achieve an MC status [either PMC or FMC]. The article has been corrected.























Comments

  1. Good article. Touched a lot of good points that as you said have been the same points since the draw down after the Gulf War. I think a point could be made that the lumping of airframe together has put, and continues to put a hurting on experience.

    ReplyDelete
  2. They need to listen to all of the Aircraft maintenance community. I suggested, as an aircraft maintenance analyst, that they allow us to take on more of the office tasks that pull maintainers off the line, such as MOC and debrief. Doing so would allow us to be where we need to be on deployments without taking a maintainers spot and would allow more maintainers to remain where they need to be. Stop giving us stupid jobs like Comm and Finance and let us put our expertise to use where its needed!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was an AF Maintainer for 27 years....one of the biggest issues is the differences in the ops and MX Schedule. First off...MX focus is Fleet Management....period, MX should never focus on the daily flying schedule...ever. This is why MC rates are in the toilet. Somehow MX has been fed this line that if you dont meet the Ops schedule you have failed....WRONG. I was at a B-1 Unit that had 0% FMC rate...thought it was a joke until I found out how it was being run. Focus was on making the flying schedule and not maintaining safe reliable jets....when I started canx lines and started focusing on MX reliability....guess what, we were at 54% in 3 months, no more weekend duty and we had iron to get Ops qualified in training...OBTW...War readiness increases. You want to take the load off Maintainers...you have a great list but the best way is to start utilizing the simulators for ops more and counting real war time missions down range as qualification flights.....It is so stupid to have to rotate pilots out of the AOR to go back to qualify to do CAS missions that you have been flying for 3 months....The people are tired and the Iron is tired...I was able to fix what I could when I ran those units, but OPS hated me and most of the O-6s I worked for Hated me....But Maintainers are the most overworked, under appreciated in the service and I would never tell my kids that that was a good job....It once was, but today, its not

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