The Fleet Readiness Center South West (FRCSW) on Naval Air Station (NAS) North Island is responsible for  major repair programs and fleet support for the United States Navy and USMC. Mark Forest presents a unique report for AeroResource, and brings the story of one special CH-53E.

The FRCSW has a long history on NAS North Island, but it was not always known by the same name. In 1919 it began as the Assembly and Repair Department –  then in 1969 became a separate command known as the Naval Air Rework Facility (NARF). During 1987 the facility changed names once again and became known as Naval Aviation Depot (NADEP). The most recent change to the FRCSW was a result of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program. All major maintenance was centralised into one location, removing the need  for  multiple locations servicing different aircraft.

In 2012 the FRCSW currently employs some 4225 staff of which 2625 are Department of Defence (DOD) civilians, 1000 from the military and 500 contractors. The staff work within 80 buildings on NAS North Island’s 2000 acres of land, and also within properties in the local San Diego area.

The FRCSW’s role can be summed up in a single sentence from its mission statement “To deliver responsive maintenance, repair and overhaul products and services in support of Fleet readiness and National Defence objectives”

The facility has 3 main aircraft support programs: Helicopters, E-2C/C-2A Hawkeye/Greyhound and F/A-18A/B/C/D/E/F Hornet/Super Hornet aircraft.

Helicopter Program

CH-53 Super Stallion, SH-60, MH-60 and HH-60 Sea Hawk/Pave Hawk.

Super Stallions and Seahawks all come into the FRSCW for depot level maintenance, known as Planned Maintenance Interval one and two (PMI1 & PMI2). Whilst in North Island the helicopters may also receive upgrades to avionics, rewiring and the airframe whilst at the same time being stripped down for servicing. As upgrades are performed whilst  under PMI1 or PMI2  this reduces work hours and downtime so increasing efficiency throughout the entire program. UH-1, HH-1, AH-1W Huey and Super Cobra helicopters receive depot level maintenance at MCAS Camp Pendleton California, MCAS Yuma Arizona and MCAS Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii.

Not all helicopters that come into the FRSCW are for maintenance and one particular CH-53E was to become a first for the Helicopter program. Bureau number 163083/YN60 of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH-361) based at nearby Marine Corps Air Station Miramar (MCAS) in San Diego was returned back into service during February 2012 after receiving extensive Battle Damage in Afghanistan to the left landing gear bulkhead.

Towards the end of 2010 163083 was hit by an Rocket-Propelled Grenade (RPG) whilst on a routine mission in Afghanistan-  luckily the crew landed the CH-53 safely with no injuries ,but the left hand undercarriage and bulkhead  had sustained heavy damage. By the end of 2010 the CH-53 had been transported aboard a C-17 to NAS North Island ready for assessment. The CH-53 was then inspected by an examiner and planner from the DOD to assess the repair costs. For nearly 4 months the CH-53 had been stored until approval had been given for the funding and work could go ahead. The aircraft entered the FRCSW rework facility at the end of March 2011.

On the 14th April 2011 163083 was handed over to a team of 3 artisans (specialist craftsmen) – Brad Hayes (now an Aircraft Examiner but in 2011 working as an aircraft sheet metal Inspector), Tony Collins, an aircraft sheet metal artisan and Son Pham – an contractor with AES (Affordable Engineering Services) who is also an sheet metal artisan. Stage 1 was to remove the bulkhead and undercarriage. Stage 2 was for Brad and Tony to fly down in early May to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson Arizona. At AMARG the team were able to salvage all the required parts off one of the many stored CH-53s. Stage 3 continued for the next 5 months whilst the specialist team of 3 concentrated all their time and effort re-shaping and fitting the undercarriage and bulkhead to the main airframe. Brad was very keen to point out that no two aircraft are the same so when you take major parts off another airframe they will not fit – especially parts that are not meant to be routinely removed. The work in Stage 4 meant by the end of October 2011 the CH-53 was able to bear the weight of the airframe on the undercarriage. At this stage Brad and his team handed over 163083 to the standard rework team ready for stage 5 – this final stage comprised 4 months of rewiring, re-spraying and finally air tests.

On the 9th February 2011 and after over 4600 work hours 163083 was on show in the Flight Test yard on NAS North Island with Brad, Tom and Son all at hand to talk about this special project and show off the very clean looking and fully operational CH-53E Sea Stallion. Just one week later 163083 was back in service with her squadron on MCAS Miramar. It was a pleasure meeting three very enthusiast artisans and seeing how proud they are of the work they do for the FRCSW.

E-2C/C-2A Program

As with the Helicopter program the E-2C Hawkeye and C-2A Greyhound have Planned depot level Maintenance  PMI1 and PMI2, and also Planned Maintenance Interval three/Service Life Extension Program/Rewire (PMI3/SLEP/Rewire) for the C-2A only.

The PMI 3/SLEP/Rewire Program for the C-2A Greyhound is a unique combination of PMI1 and PMI2 with refurbishment of the C-2A airframe,  and incorporates structural, electrical, and avionics changes to extend the working life of the aircraft. This involves a complete rewire of the aircraft and replacement of the wiring harnesses found throughout the airframe. This program obtains aircraft scheduled for a Planned Maintenance and allows the additional work requirements of SLEP and Rewire to be performed concurrently while the aircraft is in a scheduled rework zone.

For the E-2C there is also a special program known as the Super Modules – where major components such as the wings, fuselage, and Rotor dome can be removed, serviced and replaced very quickly and easily, thus reducing work hours on the airframe and allowing it to be returned to service faster.

F/A-18 Program

FRSCW features 3 main F/A-18 groups on NAS North Island. As with the C-2A and E-2C, there are PMI1 and PMI2 planned maintenance programs. The third group is concerned with extending the life of airframes with high flight hours.

Special Rework /Crash Damage Repair (SR/CD)

This work area concentrates on aircraft that are damaged through mishaps or require specialist attention to areas not normally covered during the PMI1 and PMI2 rework process. Repair teams work closely with maintenance artisans to ensure high levels of safety and reliability when bringing the airframe back to operational status.

Centerbarrel  Replacement  Plus (CBR+)

This major F/A-18 A,B,C and D life extension program was specially designed by the artisans and engineers of the FRCSW. The concept is to allow the centre fuselage to be removed then replace it with a brand new centerbarrel, mating the rear tail section and the forward cockpit/nose section together. This program has just seen its 100th F/A-18 return back to the air in active duty since the CBR+ program commenced 2000. The CBR+ program ensures that instead of being stricken off, aircraft can be refitted over a period of 1-2 years and the service life extended with a multimillion dollar cost saving per airframe.

Currently FRCSW has in excess of an 100 F/A-18 airframes spread between the 3 groups, and also stores F/A-18E/F Super Hornets for East and West coast Fleet Replacement Squadrons (FRS) – these being VFA-106 on the East coast, and VFA-122 on the West coast. These Super Hornets are stored outside in the Flight Test yard, and can be made fully operational and back in service in approximately 5 weeks.

Flight Test

To finish all programs, Helicopters, E-2/C-2s and F/A-18s have to spend time in the Flight Test area – housed in the Northern corner of NAS North Island. Here many ground tests, engine tests and air tests are run to ensure aircraft are fully airworthy before they are returned to their units.

Special thanks for this article must go to Michael Furlano and Bradley Hayes for allowing the visit at FRCSW, Ian French, Jon Astley and Roger Chapman for planning, co-ordinating and photography whilst on base over the two visits.