Back in 2008, long before the Federal Government recently doubled down on Australian Industry Capability (AIC) requirements of suppliers to the Australian Defence Forces, GE Aviation was collaborating locally to support the safe and efficient flight of Australia’s Classic Hornets and Super Hornets.
Since then, partnerships and capacity for repairing and maintaining GE components of ADF aircraft and vessels have been expanded; Australian technicians and engineering graduates have benefited from exposure to the specifications, operating parameters and requirements of military engines; and a new program of data collection and analysis of marine gas-turbine engines has been initiated to put Australia ahead of the world in engine-performance monitoring in the marine environment.
As a result of knowledge and skills developed in Australia by GE and its partners, Australia stands to win business supporting other regional, and even US military equipment. Paul Bayly, GE’s F414/F404 project manager in Australia says, “GE in Australia is helping Australian companies and partnered organisations to become part of GE’s global supply chain in the truest sense.”
Excellence and ingenuity have characterised co-operative approaches to the challenges raised by Australia’s distance from many Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and the country’s relatively small volume of highly specialised military equipment maintenance.
Says Jody Riggs, turbofans business manager at TAE Aerospace, GE’s Australian partner in the Total Logistics Support Contract for Classic Hornet F404-400 engines, and Super Hornet and Growler F414 engines: “In the TLS program GE and TAE are world leaders in quality of build across the F404 and F414 engine space.” This in turn is an important factor in world-beating time-on-wing results and greatly reduced unscheduled engine removals compared to other countries’ Hornet fleets.
Over time, GE Aviation in Australia has worked with its partners to bring an increasing proportion of work, and a higher level of engine repairs in country.
Bringing it home
“The repatriation of repairs from the United States to Australia is very much an ongoing activity,” says Terry Richardson, GE’s lead general operations specialist on the F404 & F414 TLS Program.
In 2015, he says, when TAE was performing around 40% of repairs to the RAAF’s F414 Super Hornet engine, GE and TAE went through the engine from front to back, component by component, to assess which repairs could be carried out in country. It divided the possibilities into categories: standard repairs utilising existing TAE skills with minimum investment in tooling; standard repairs that required significant capital expenditure on tooling; and unique repairs requiring standalone projects to develop bespoke solutions.
As a result of significant tooling investment by GE and intensive collaboration with TAE, 80-90% of F414 repairs are now done in Australia, along with upwards of 90% on the F404.
One repair illustrating the complex nature of engine logistics support is that of the secondary flap in the engine afterburner (one of six modules that make up the engine). “There is a large quantity of secondary flaps per engine and they have a high wear rate. They were considered 100% throwaway, and are expensive to replace,” says Bayly. To combat unnecessary waste, the TLS program devised a unique repair, reducing reliance on the US supply chain and allowing valuable parts to safely fly again.
At the same time, “Worldwide supply of these flaps is challenged,” says Bayly. As a result, Bayly’s team is now investigating whether TAE can repair parts from US-based customers. The likely success of this trial will potentially bring a large volume of repairs into Australia from the US military, which flies some 546 Super Hornets with more on order from Boeing, and each powered by two GE F414 turbofan engines.
“It would mean increased throughput in our programs and increased labour demand. So that’s a win straightaway,” says Riggs. “But ultimately, it means that the biggest player in the world would be sending their work to us, and we could leverage that to bring in future repairs.”
In GE Aviation Systems it’s harder to reach economies of scale to invest in tooling and processes that would repair the huge diversity of parts it has on ADF military aircraft of every stripe.
That said, at RAAF Williamtown, in NSW, the business maintains and repairs GE avionics (electronic equipment) on Hawk 127 training jets, on the C-130J Hercules and soon on the C-27J Spartan transport aircraft. And at RAAF Richmond, NSW, it runs workshops to maintain GE Dowty propellers on the C-130J and C-27J.
The C-27Js will soon move to RAAF Amberley, in Queensland, which means GE will see repair operations for the Dowty propellers on those aircraft move to GE Aviation’s facility at Brisbane Airport. GE will invest in specialised maintenance and build equipment for this second prop-repair site because, says David Mahoney, director of military business for GE Aviation Systems in the Southern Asia Pacific region, “The whole prop set is way longer than a person, so it’s easy to damage and you want to transport them as little as possible.”
The reputation of GE Aviation for on-time and quality repairs to RAAF C-130J cockpit avionics at its facility in Williamtown has resulted in Lockheed Martin, the US-based aircraft OEM, inducting repairs for international C-130J operators (such as the UK, Italy and India) into the Australian facility. Potential new international customers for the service include Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Tunisia. Although this work is not a requirement of the AIC programs, it’s another example of the high performance and ingenuity of GE Aviation’s Australian operations creating an export market for repairs to military equipment.
The benefits of AIC are many and varied. “It can sometimes take months, if not a year or more, for parts to come back from an overseas repair,” says Mahoney. “In the meantime, our military customer only keeps so many spares. So if we didn’t have the repair facility here, and all of this kit had to go offshore, the turnaround time would cause a number of aircraft to remain on the ground. That’s not efficient, and it’s one of the reasons why the Australian Government wants to maximise AIC.”
With other GE Aviation Systems’ military components — such as cockpit canopies, and generators on the Classic Hornet; and avionics and computer systems on a wide range of aircraft — Mahoney leads a team of GE Australia employees in managing spare parts and maintenance sourced overseas.
Although the volume of repair work on these has not yet reached the critical mass to stand up Australian-based repair programs, a game changer in this area will be GE’s electrical power-distribution system on the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The support contract won’t come into force for a few years, says Mahoney, “but GE will maintain these systems in Australia for all F-35 operators in the Asia-Pacific region”.
Mahoney constantly hawks Australian expertise to support GE equipment on military aircraft throughout the region — striving to build volume. “I’m always pursuing work out of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, and I’m in hot pursuit of work on New Zealand military aircraft.” He says there’s also a case for a, “Build it and they will come” approach. Mahoney and GE’s government liaison, Sam Maresh, are also working this angle — tooling up ahead of anticipated demand.
Finely turned out turbines
In Sydney and Perth, where the Royal Australian Navy’s Anzac Class frigates, the remaining Adelaide Class frigates, the Hobart Class destroyers and Canberra Class Amphibious Assault ships tie up when they’re at home, GE Aviation-Marine works under a multi-year contract to support the RAN’s LM2500 marine gas turbines that put the high speed into these vessels.
The agreement signed in 2015, is designed to ensure optimal fleet readiness and to lower the cost of ownership of the turbines. It has several aspects, including warehousing and inventory management of spare parts, and depot-level maintenance of the 16 in-service and six spare turbines. Major, or depot-level maintenance is performed in partnership with Air New Zealand Gas Turbines (NZ is included in AIC measurements), which is also an authorised vendor of LM2500 parts, enabling the Marine program to spend more dollars locally.
Under the agreement, GE also performs as much maintenance on the turbines as possible in Australia, with a focus on continuously upskilling Navy technicians to look after the engines when the ships are at sea or on operations, says Steve Burdick, program manager.
“Setting up the facilities in Perth and Sydney has also allowed us to perform Level 2 maintenance in Australia,” says Burdick. (That’s maintenance more in-depth than shipboard, less intense than depot-level.” The work, in which the engine is typically disassembled into modules, enabling large internal components to be replaced, requires highly specialised field engineers and tooling. Previously, the engines had to be sent to New Zealand, the US or the UK, for Level 2 work, but having those trained Australian field engineers in facilities so close to port has provided the RAN with much faster turnaround, and also instant, easy access to advice and expertise.
A slow burner on the AIC front, but a project that will potentially blow the targets out of the water, is GE Aviation-Marine’s collaboration with CSIRO’s Data61, to securely download and analyse data from the LM2500s in use. “Data collection and meaningful data analysis in the marine-propulsion environment is an almost undeveloped field,” says Burdick. The project is expected to provide insights into how the RAN can more efficiently operate its engines, as well as increased reliability, and savings in wear and tear.
More broadly, says Burdick, “If we get the program started and operating in Australia, that becomes a capability that other countries aren’t going to reinvent. They’re likely to come to us.”
Employing and training skilled workers, sharing expertise, and investing in tooling and test equipment, GE and its local partners have for many years been innovating in country, in support of a highly advanced and effective ADF. Now, says Bayly, “We’re about to get into exporting our capabilities.” We’ve got the right stuff.