TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The KC-135 Block 45 upgrade program reached a milestone by closing out 2016 with the 45th aircraft in the modification line here.
Block 45 completely remodels the inside of the flight deck with new liquid crystal displays, radio altimeter, auto-pilot, digital flight director and other computer module updates, according to information provided by the Legacy Tanker Division located here at Tinker.
Reaching milestone number 45 can be attributed, in part, to innovations taking place in the back-shops of the 564th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. Belinda Schantz, Block 45 unit chief, explains how her people improved the process. “One person started it. Then everyone started getting ideas.”
“This is the capstone modification that takes your 1950s/1960s era tanker and makes it a 21st century asset that’s as modern as any flight deck we have in the Air Force,” Col. Mark Mocio, Legacy Tanker Division commander with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center explained. “It enables us to meet all the global rules we have on air traffic navigation now and for a long time to come.”
Innovations have taken place from the ground up through empowered workers who established a speedline to shave off 30 program days.
The speedline has been the key to success as it removes a large portion of work that took place on the aircraft in cramped, poorly lit spaces while trying to work around others and brings it into well-lit shops where a majority of the work can be done in a “kitting” process.
The $910 million program began almost seven years ago as part of the Air Force’s continuing efforts to keep the aging C/KC-135 series aircraft, the last of which were delivered in 1961, viable for many years to come. The Block 45 modification enhances the previous PACER CRAG cockpit and fuel management systems upgrade accomplished between 1997 and 2001.
The Block 45 upgrade is a Rockwell Collins managed program which began with a forecasted slow start through the modification of two aircraft by Rockwell’s subcontractor ARINC (now Field Aerospace) in their Oklahoma City facility at Will Rogers World Airport. These two aircraft were prototype engineering and manufacturing development airframes.
After these two prototypes, the program entered Low-Rate Initial Production 1 (LRIP I) phase, consisting of 17 additional airframes). These installations met the contractual obligations, but took longer to modify than desired and did not include small-business suppliers. This phase of the program took an average of 100 days to modify each KC-135.
“Normally this is something the original equipment manufacturer would do,” said Allan Lee, Legacy Tanker contracting chief. “Since it was being done by a local subcontractor, the question we asked was, ’Why can’t we do this organically?’”
In 2015 the Legacy Tanker Division within the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center in conjunction with the OC-ALC, both headquartered at Tinker, returned outsourced modification work to the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex workforce where the concentrated experience for the C/KC-135 aircraft is located. This move enhanced OC-ALC’s ability to produce by leveraging the fact a majority of maintenance, repair and overhaul functions were already taking place at the base. Just moving the modification program back to Tinker saved an estimated five production days.
Upon moving the modification work to Tinker and the 564th AMXS, LRIP II began where efficiencies were realized as they began using the “Art of the Possible” to innovate through the speedline described earlier.
Once the Block 45 modification work was given to Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex and the 564th AMXS, they began innovating with the establishment of a speedline. “Moving it from the contractor to here, we were confident we could reduce the flow days,” said Colonel Mocio. However, he recognized, “A lot of innovation had to be done to allow for that. There was kitting and technical innovation which allowed the maintenance folks to get it from the 120 days down to below 50 days. That initiative is pretty incredible. It’s a challenge.”
Mr. Lee explained another advantage of the speedline was to include small business in the process. “They installed a speedline that takes kits from Rockwell Collins and various small business contractors. Then we do it here organically. About 50 flow days to install using the 50/50 rule, 50 percent organic with 50 percent contracted out.”
The modification is time consuming. The block 45 modification is intensive, frustrating work fraught with opportunities for mistakes, Ms. Belinda Schantz explained. During LRIP I most of the actual work took place on the aircraft in cramped spaces with poor lighting.
“Gutting old wiring and then reinstalling new kits, liquid crystal display screens and supporting equipment is a multi-person job,” Ms. Schantz said. “Complicating the installation is having to work around installed controls such as the throttle quadrant and trim wheel located in the middle of the flight deck.”
The avionics rack presents its own challenges because it is a four-shelf rack with important components mounted on the shelves and the sides with thousands of wire connections. Ms. Schantz sums up the biggest challenge of working onboard the aircraft. “It was just a tangled mess.”
“Art of the Possible” empowered Block 45 avionics technicians, mechanics and even supply personnel to find ways to innovate. The 564th AMXS now builds kits using supplies from the prime contractor and small businesses in their back shops located in Bldg. 898 on the south ramp. Here they can complete a majority of the work with ease while making thousands of connections which are also tested and verified before the entire thing is bundled and kitted for delivery to the airplane. Once at the jet, the kit ensures a relatively quick installation and allows the technicians to move on to the next step in the process.
Lt. Joshua Neace, KC-135 program manager, feels the word is getting out to the operators of the fleet of tankers which are always in high demand. “They’re hungry. We work with Air Mobility Command, the Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve Command and there are people who decide which aircraft are coming to us and when. It’s a huge integrated process. Everybody wants it.” The Block 45 modification upgrades or replaces 63 items such as analog instruments which are considered high-maintenance or obsolete altogether, Lieutenant Neace explained.
“Flow days are way down due to innovation and, employees buy-in to this,” Ms. Schantz explained. “It’s their project and they want to be proud of it. They want to make it happen.”
Looking forward to the future, Ms. Schantz says the focus for her team remains doing things right using the “Art of the Possible.” “I’ve told them safety is number one, quality is number two, and then the quantity will come.”