Improving Mission Readiness

(Originally published in Army Aviation Magazine, 16 Dec 2014.  By Kevin Steidel and Dr. Charles Ryan.  See original here.)

The Department of Defense has aircraft numbering in the thousands with the U.S. Army maintaining the largest quantity of rotary wing aircraft. With over a dozen unique aviation platforms that have several variants each, growing maintenance logistics are consuming more and more of a shrinking budget. Taming these opposing forces requires common solutions.

Common Needs, Uncommon Support

Reduction of aviation maintenance cost is a long standing goal for all branches of the DoD and common support equipment has become a proven method toward achieving that goal. Highly complex weapon systems require large quantities of specialized test equipment to maintain mission readiness. The total logistics footprint of this equipment can become enormous when training, spares, storage, repair and deployment are considered. Single purpose test equipment has become a growing liability in an environment of reduced maintenance staff with advanced weapons platforms.

When signal disruption occurs in electrical paths, existing maintenance techniques require significant time and cost to identify and isolate the root cause. Maintainers, following prevailing maintenance practices, often fall into a cycle of “swaptronics,” where non-faulty components and avionic assemblies are removed and then subject to unnecessary maintenance before returning to service, incurring preventable costs. Weapon system interconnect wiring is usually the final item examined in an environment where exchanging components is perceived as a faster solution, frequently resulting in lengthy and expensive repairs.

The U.S. Navy/Marine Corps had been searching for a replacement of their aged Wire Test Set (WTS) and the U.S. Air Force had spent years investigating analyzers for use in all levels of maintenance on all platforms. Taking the lead from the DoD Automatic Test Systems (ATS) Directorate, the Navy Awarded Eclypse International a joint services contract for common multi-function test equipment configured for all levels of maintenance. With the Automated Wire Test Set (AWTS), maintainers now can test many of the components on the aircraft as well as the wires that interconnect them.

Do More With Less… Beyond a Wire Tester

More than just reducing “no fault found” maintenance costs, an analyzer needs to perform more than basic wire integrity tests. Once interconnect wiring of a troubled system is suspected, the maintainer’s ability is reduced to manually checking for faults wire by wire. Further complicating the process are numerous components and advanced data bus systems, causing manual troubleshooting to become error prone, thus less effective and more time consuming.

AWTS is a family of equipment manufactured by Eclypse International that provides scalable and modular electrical test capability. Each module is designed to operate in harsh O-level environmental conditions, yet is scalable to support intermediate- and depot-level locations. The system architecture consists of over eighty percent of common components, further reducing the logistic footprint and total spares requirements across the whole DoD maintenance environment. The unique elements of each configuration provide performance and scalability characteristics to meet maintenance-level specific requirements. In addition, the executive software that operates the AWTS is identical across all configurations, assuring consistent training across all platforms and levels of maintenance.

A Good Side of Downsizing

Traditionally, systems with the capabilities of AWTS have been too complex and bulky to be of use at a field level and thus only found at manufacturing or depot facilities where space is of less concern. Advances in electronic components and system packaging have combined to bring these test capabilities to the problem instead of bringing the problem to the capability (at the depot).

AWTS and similar equipment have been supporting H-60 platforms in the Navy for several years, but not as a replacement to current procedures and manual troubleshooting skills. Rather, the focus has been toward elevating pervasive problems sooner to break the cycle of false avionic removals. Additionally, they have started to shift the approach of some maintenance practices toward proactive as opposed to reactive. Aircraft scheduled for deployment are now “groomed” by inspecting systems prior to departure. This has resulted in more reliable “mission ready” aircraft with less unscheduled maintenance in the field overall.

The Army Prototype Integration Facility (PIF) in Huntsville, AL has evaluated AWTS and it is being integrated on Army rotary wing aircraft. Army units are actively using AWTS on the H-6, H-47, and H-60 platforms. They have begun to focus on preventative maintenance and grooming systems before their deployment, reducing reactive maintenance. A goal is to share lessons learned and expand the program to additional platforms.

Benefits to the Use of Common Electrical Test Equipment Interoperability

The benefits from AWTS testing capabilities are not specific to any single platform or components, but can be used on any weapon system. The same AWTS family of circuit analyzers used for the H-60 can test H-6s, H-47s, H-56s, F-15s, F-18s, C-130s, unmanned systems, ground vehicles, or any item in the DoD inventory.

In addition to the ability to test the electrical system on weapon systems, maintenance staff are trained on common AWTS equipment and software, enabling proficient use where and when the need is required. Therefore, an H-60 maintenance person can also be deployed to test the electrical system of other platforms in order to assure overall mission readiness rates. Deployment of AWTS to the various military maintenance levels allows trained technicians to rapidly respond to maintenance needs on other weapon systems, ensuring the highest readiness rates for the mission. With common testing occurring at the depot and field levels, maintainers have access and use of the same engineering and resources.

Reduced Logistics Footprint

Traditional maintenance in the DoD relies, to a degree, upon dedicated test equipment specifically developed for a particular platform and component. Hence, there is a need for many test sets, plus the logistics system to manage and maintain the test equipment as needed. With the use of common AWTS equipment applicable to any weapon system deployed for the mission, the logistics footprint is greatly reduced for both the hardware as well as the maintenance support staff responsible for testing, resulting in reduced cost. Smaller, portable systems also reduce the space and weight necessary for deployment to the field and recovery.

Value to Mission Success

Use of the AWTS capability within DoD has demonstrated its ability to quickly and efficiently find electrical issues within weapon systems. Where deployed, no-fault-found (NFF) rates are reduced, along with test times, resulting in efficient and thorough diagnosis of electrical problems. Readiness rates improve along with weapon system performance and safety to better assure mission success.

The test technology is being used as a quality control check for newly manufactured rotary wing aircraft before delivery to the DoD, further reducing costs to both the OEM and DoD with the delivery of a product with high quality.

Summary

Using AWTS common test equipment, Army Aviation is optimizing the electrical systems of their fleet, increasing readiness rates at reduced maintenance time and costs. Since common test equipment can be used across platforms, AWTS greatly reduces the logistics footprint needed when deployed, and therefore trained maintainers, at all levels of maintenance can use the same capability for the electrical testing of any weapon system deployed. Common support equipment enables the reduction of item management and maintenance.

Mr. Kevin Steidel is the technical director and the late Dr. Charles Ryan was in systems development for Eclypse International of Corona, CA.