There may be no other instance in which someone would confidently put their hand into a hornet’s nest, but the Royal Australian Air Force recently reached in and pulled out the 300th GE “I-3” F404-400 low-bypass turbofan engine, assembled from serviced modules at its Williamtown (NSW) and Amberley (Queensland) workshops under GE’s Total Logistics Support (TLS) program, which is dedicated to keeping Australia’s fleet of 71 Hornets and 24 Super Hornets flying super safely and at their best.
The trust and confidence at the heart of this relationship, which has been in place since December 2008, must be appreciated in the context of sending Australian personnel into combat where the last thing a pilot needs to worry about is the reliability and performance of his or her engine.
In true recognition of this relationship, Air Marshal Geoff Brown, the recently retired Chief of Air Force, wrote personally to Vice President and General Manager of Military Systems at GE Aviation, Jean-Lydon Rodgers reflecting on GE’s successful long-term collaboration with the Royal Australian Air Force and specifically its contribution to current combat operations.
A Hornet pilot himself, AM Brown reflected, “Having flown many of my military hours with GE404s, I have always appreciated the reliability of the GE product. I know my airmen who are flying both the Hornets and KC-30 over Iraq in the war against ISIL share the same confidence and your team should be proud of the role they play in both our nations’ security.”
The life of the engine is typically determined by its rotating components
GE’s long-term partner in the TLS program is Australian-owned aerospace and avionics services company TAE, the subcontractor responsible for carrying out engine maintenance work at Williamtown and Amberley. TAE’s general manager, Andrew Sanderson, highlights professionalism and commitment as key to the partnership dynamics of “delivering high-quality and cost-effective product support to the customer throughout the entire engine lifecycle”.
“Our role as the prime contractor is program and logistics management and field service,” explains Watterson. He says that although the hole-in-the-wall model simplifies the customer’s operations, GE’s activities behind the wall are complex and require a dedicated team of GE Aviation professionals, both in Australia and abroad, to deliver faultlessly against 11 stated KPIs.
The foremost of these requirements is that there will always be a specific number of tested, Ready For Installation (RFI) engines for the taking. This requires precise calculations as to the number of parts to be kept on hand, the number of each of seven modules that make up an engine to have ready, and the relative age of each of those modules so that at any time an engine can be made up of similar-aged modules and fitted onto a Hornet. Each of the two engines on the jet should also be of a similar age, giving it the greatest likelihood of flying for the longest period without the need for unscheduled maintenance.
“We have a fixed-price contract with the customer, so we have to have accurate spares forecasting to make sure all the required spares are available while keeping costs down,” says Watterson.
In the modules section of the parts “supermarket”, as Watterson describes it, remaining module life is all important. The life of each engine, he explains, is typically determined by its rotating components, which can reach temperatures of up to 1037o Celsius—”they’re under stress, so they’ve only got a certain life to them”. To build an engine from serviced modules, he says, “you want to select modules that are fairly similar in remaining life”. For example, building an engine from modules that mostly have 1,000 hours remaining, and adding one that has only 200 hours remaining is not cost effective, “because then you have to pull the engine apart again in 200 hours”.
Similarly, he says, “If an engine comes in with, say, some Foreign Object Damage (FOD) to the Fan module, we’ll take it off and look for a Fan module in the supermarket that has roughly equivalent life to the rest of the engine; we’ll fit that on and the engine will be tested and made RFI.
“The modular concept works because you can repair an engine much more quickly if you just put in a new module, as opposed to waiting for repairs to the module itself.”
Engines that are damaged in combat zones, such as Iraq, are removed and flown back to Australia for repair. “They have some spares or ‘flyaway kits’ as they call them, over there, and do some repairs there if they can. And if things turn really bad, Australia can use spare engines from the US Navy, which operates identical engines to those we’re using. But they usually don’t like to do that. Everyone’s got their own ways of maintaining engines and we like to keep our own engines, for consistency,” says Watterson.
GE’s contract with the RAAF was renewed in February 2014, with a $230 million extension to ensure continued support of the F404 engines, until the time of withdrawal of the Hornet fleet. “It’s a long-term relationship of trust between GE and the customer,” says Watterson.
“Although it would be fair to say that the majority of military flying is devoted to training exercises during peacetime, when aircraft are actually called to action these types of support programs are put to the test. When then PM Tony Abbott announced to the nation, that we were going to send jets to the Middle East and we were going to have them there in two weeks, that was pretty much the first anybody heard about it.” GE’s TLS program stood the test, and Watterson is proud to say that it continues to successfully support the RAAF’s overseas operations. “The contract has the flexibility to support those aircraft when they’re deployed for combat, as well as in the course of day-to-day training routines.”
Main image: Flight Lieutenant Tom Gleeson in front of his F/A-18 Hornet after returning from the RAAF’s first deployment to Iraq in 2003. Gleeson is now a sales director for GE Aviation Commercial Engines, located in Sydney, Australia.