The Naval Aviation Enterprise (NAE) completed the initial phase of a novel virtual roll-out of its squadron-level maintenance improvements to units at Naval Air Stations (NASs) Norfolk and North Island on July 17. Using a combination of technology, innovation and dedication to mission, the team involved prevented a delay in this important implementation while observing safety protocols necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is a win for Naval Aviation,” said Rear Adm. John “Ringo” Ring, NAE lead for O-Level Reform. “We needed innovative solutions to get around the COVID-19 restrictions, and the team came up with a plan to initiate improvements at two squadrons, while protecting our people and completing our tasks.”
The roll-out involves the Organizational-level (O-level) Reform efforts of the Naval Sustainment System-Aviation (NSS-A), an initiative that began approximately two years ago as a way to improve readiness across Naval Aviation. At the direction of the then-Secretary of Defense, the F/A-18 and EA-18G served as the initial communities to introduce NSS-A.
The F/A-18E-F NSS-A efforts produced around 90 additional mission capable Super Hornets—the equivalent of returning $5.5 billion in taxpayer-provided assets back to the flight line. The Super Hornet community reduced the turnaround time of special inspections by more than 40%, meaning more aircraft were available for the flight schedule. After the F/A-18EF successes—which include the highest mission-capable rates in decades—the NAE began to turn attention to rolling out O-level Reform to other squadrons and communities.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Barred from travel and the in-person tutelage originally planned as part of this effort, the team—led by type-command (TYCOM) personnel from the Commander, Naval Air Forces Pacific (CNAP)—had to find a different way to deliver the necessary tools and training.
“So here we are,” said LCDR Juan Lucero, CNAP O-level policy review lead and the team lead for the virtual roll-out. “Since we are constrained by COVID-19 guidance, and in an effort to continue to improve the fleet’s readiness, the team developed electronic means of providing the training to the type wings and the squadrons via virtual methods like MS Teams, teleconferences and finding different ways to communicate.
“Ideally, we would have done all this face-to-face,” he continued. “We had to, as a team, learn to overcome these challenges and deliver our message effectively to these squadrons. We have a win-win situation here. We were able to get this implementation done on schedule using virtual methods, but we were also able to introduce and ‘normalize’ new software tools for our folks here at CNAP.”
The original squadron slated for the virtual roll-out was Airborne Command & Control Squadron 121 (VAW-121) at NAS Norfolk. However, once Lucero’s team had developed an effective tele-solution, Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 14 (HSC-14) at NAS North Island was added to the plan.
“VAW-121 was ready to begin implementing these reforms, and we didn’t want to delay our plans because of the pandemic,” said Cmdr. Martin Fentress, commanding officer, VAW-121. “We’re vigilant about maintaining the balance between operational readiness and personnel safety. This virtual option allowed us to get into place improvements we were already planning without pushing the timeline. We’re looking forward to seeing benefits in turnaround time and overall maintenance operations.”
On the HSC side, the Commodore, Capt. Sean Rocheleau said, “The virtual roll-out benefitted us because it let us implement the reforms on our time line, but it also saved us time from having to find a place on our schedule to do this later in the year, possibly impacting our planned operations. The HSC community is used to being flexible, independent and prepared for any scenario, so we’re a natural fit to try this virtual option.”
O-level Reform changes involve a variety of adjustments to procedures including delegating ownership over aircraft being repaired to individual crew leads who are usually first-class petty officers; having white boards next to aircraft that show anyone going by the current repair status of that aircraft; keeping all tools, parts and other materials necessary to fix a specific aircraft kept in a dedicated space with the aircraft instead of in other storage areas; and daily meetings to keep everyone informed of the status of every aircraft in for repairs.
Another major emphasis of the reform is a reinvigoration of Continuous Process Improvement (CPI) across Naval Aviation maintenance.
“This is much more than coming in with some proven changes and adjusting squadron maintenance,” explained Lucero. “In fact, we’re looking re-moniker this effort as we go forward and call it O-Level Maintenance Management. It’s not just about reform, it’s about a new way of doing business and constantly evaluating our approach so we can constantly find ways to do it better.”
Lucero and his team will have a chance to look for new CPI opportunities in a few weeks. With the initial phase complete, the TYCOM team hands ownership of the implementation process to the type wings for three weeks. Then, CNAP will re-engage directly to evaluate progress and make adjustments. The hope is this time, they can visit the squadrons in person.
If not, they’ll continue to employ the virtual methods they already proved work to complete their efforts.
The Naval Aviation Enterprise is a collaborative warfighting partnership where naval aviation leaders deliberate and resolve interdependent issues across the whole of naval aviation to provide combat ready naval air forces to the fleet.
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