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News | Oct. 30, 2019

Super Hornet lands extended service life

By Navy Cmdr. Joseph Holt DCMA Boeing St. Louis

Defense Contract Management Agency Boeing St. Louis recently delivered its first F/A-18E/F Super Hornet after completion of depot repairs under the Service Life Modification program.

“The event is a significant milestone for the Super Hornet,” said Navy Capt. Paul Filardi, DCMA Boeing St. Louis commander and F/A-18 weapons system officer. “The SLM program is one of the Navy’s top priority endeavors and is estimated to run for more than 15 years at a cost of approximately $7.8 billion. The SLM program operates under the philosophy, ‘one program, two sites,’ with SLM activities being accomplished in two phases at two locations — St. Louis and San Antonio.”

Jess Overby, the DCMA Boeing St. Louis F/A-18 E/F Service Life Modification program integrator, provided further details on the phased approach.

“The first phase is an 18-month process of inspection, modification, repair and restoration that will extend the service life of the aircraft by 25% — from its current 6,000 flight hour limitation to 7,500 flight hours,” he said. “During this phase, the Super Hornet aircraft will be extensively disassembled, thoroughly inspected, and undergo modification and repairs exceeding 5,000 hours at a cost of over $10 million per aircraft. But that’s a bargain compared to the $65 million cost for a new aircraft.”

The second phase of the program is a 12-month process of extensive modifications to the aircraft’s launch system structure and components, arresting gear system and components, and certain structural areas of the aircraft, said Overby. In addition, each aircraft will get new paint. During this time the aircraft will also be ungraded with Block III capabilities, which include advanced crew stations, communications and other system upgrades.

After completion of the second phase, the aircraft life expectancy will be extended again, taking the aircraft from 7,500 to 10,000 flight hours, for a total life extension of 67% from its original 6,000 flight-hour limit and adding approximately a decade more service.

“This is a significant life extension for the F/A-18 Super Hornet,” said Filardi. “The Super Hornet was first introduced operationally in 2001 and this life increase with the added tactical capabilities of Block III will make these aircraft the lethal centerpiece of aircraft carrier-based naval aviation for another 20 years.”

According to Filardi, the main challenge for the Super Hornet SLM program is that the condition of each aircraft is unknown. Having been operational for up to 15 years or more, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet aircraft inducted for SLM all have over 5,500 flight hours, thousands of take-offs and landings, including carrier launch and recovery, and have been subjected to harsh atmospheric environments. Corrosion, stress and fatigue damage is found on every aircraft.

“Identifying, investigating, and analyzing the damage, then developing disposition instructions and repairing the damage takes expert knowledge and experience, both from our industry counterparts and DCMA team members at Boeing St. Louis and Aircraft Integrated Maintenance Operations Kelly,” said Overby.

Another challenge is the volume of work, with work in progress on 40 Super Hornets during full-rate production. The program is scheduled to send 20% of the aircraft through St. Louis, while the other 80% will be worked in San Antonio. Between the two sites, an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is projected to have one inducted and one delivered through the SLM program on an average of once every nine days.

While the San Antonio facility typically handles Air Force aircraft maintenance, Air Force Lt. Col. Jeremey Thomas, DCMA AIMO Kelly commander, is confident that both the St. Louis and San Antonio teams will find success.

“I am confident in the men and women of DCMA Boeing St. Louis and AIMO Kelly who are operating efficiently and seamlessly, and driving the contractor to do the same,” said Thomas. “They all know the importance of this program and will not allow anything short of excellence.”

Apparently, that excellence extends past those responsible for the direct SLM work.

“It’s not just DCMA and industry personnel who are invested in the success of this program in San Antonio,” said Thomas. “The entire city of San Antonio and even the state of Texas are excited to be a part of this and are devoted to making this program a success. The mayor has been onsite multiple times and is driving efforts to provide a qualified workforce. Senator John Cornyn was here to emphasize the importance of San Antonio to this program. And even the local Air Force community is excited to see the F-18 in the pattern and are actively working with us to de-conflict air space.”

Editor's Note: Navy Cmdr. Joseph Holt is the executive officer at DCMA Boeing St. Louis.