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Aircraft Gets a Makeover in Phase Maintenance

Navy Newsstand

12/3/2002 10:49:00 AM

By Journalist 2nd Class Phil Hasenkamp, U.S. Pacific Fleet Public Affairs

KANEOHE, Hawaii (NNS) -- Looking up from a thick stack of maintenance cards, Aviation Machinist's Mate Airman Elizabeth Simpson glances at her day's project before going to work on it. The massive hulk of aircraft fuselage in front of her needs a lot of work, and it's come to the right place.

Simpson's shop is where P-3C Orion mission readiness begins and ends. As a member of the Phase Maintenance Team at Patrol Squadron Four (VP-4) at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Simpson helps give complete makeovers to aircraft before they get back on the runway.

"We're doing 'man on stand turns.' They turn on the engines, and we get close enough to check for air leaks inside," she said, dwarfed by the exposed Allison T-56-A-14 turboprop, 4,600 horsepower beast she'll examine this day.

With propellers attached, four of these engines are the means by which a P-3C Orion takes to the air. "I've always liked big engines. There's just something about the power," Simpson said.

Armed with a helmet, goggles and a peerless attention to detail, Simpson plays a pivotal role in her squadron's ability to meet its operational requirements. She's on the front lines in a war against aircraft attrition.

"It feels good to get the engines up and running. It makes you feel good to be able to say: 'I helped in fixing that engine.'" she said. "It feels like I'm doing something to help the squadron with the missions that we have."

But she's not alone in her effort. Phase maintenance represents a total team effort.

"When you come in each morning, you pretty much know what you have to do. You can count on working hard the whole time," Aviation Structural Mechanic 3rd Class Blake Metcalf said, wiping his hands clean after a morning spent working on the body of a P-3. "The length of your day depends on the quality of your work, and how well you cooperate with other people."

As a structural mechanic, Metcalf spends his days repairing the skin of the aircraft. "Generally, there is a lot of external corrosion and exfoliation. It's not really something you can see coming, but you have to know how to take care of it if and when it happens," he said, adding that much of what he does involves two staple Navy activities - sanding and painting.

The phase maintenance shop is a congregation of specialists from throughout the command. It's a place where people from many different work backgrounds come together to complete a finished product.

"We pretty much strip down the plane, replace the stuff that needs to be replaced, repair everything, troubleshoot stuff, and then put everything back together again," Metcalf added.

VP-4 owns 10 P-3C Orion aircraft. After 224 days of operation, each aircraft must enter phase, or overhaul maintenance.

"Every phase in phase maintenance corresponds to a set of engines," Aviation Electrician 2nd Class Jason West said of phases alpha, bravo, charlie and delta. West's job is to work on the complicated electronics systems in the engines.

"We test and retest one engine with an alternate. The whole time, other people are working on different parts of the aircraft. So by the end, we have the whole package ready to go," he added.

Teamwork is not undervalued.

"Everyone in this shop relies on each other and works with one another in some way. It's impossible to do a solo job," West said. "If you don't do your job right, the plane won't take off. Or worse yet, if it takes off, it might crash if something wasn't done right in phase maintenance."

But matching the right specialties and training to the right job is a labor in it's own right. Aviation Maintenance Administrationman 1st Class AoaPoa Augafa, phase maintenance leading petty officer, calls it a conundrum.

"The challenge is getting to know the aircraft and the aircraft systems," he said. "After that, you can start putting together the maintenance puzzle. That involves matching the right people to the right jobs."

Often, doing a job in the phase maintenance shop can serve a dual purpose.

"Sometimes, we like to have an untrained person tag along with someone who is going to do a specific task," Augafa, an 18-year Navy veteran said. "You tend to learn from experience that way."

A single P-3 can provide a hefty workload for phase maintainers at VP-4, but oftentimes they have much more to deal with.

"If you have one aircraft in the shop, you can count on eight to nine hour workdays," West said. "But it's pretty common to have two or three P-3s in here. At that point, we're coming in for 12 or 13 hours per day. We're here on weekends, too, if necessary."

But hard work at VP-4 results in a unique feeling of satisfaction.

"It's hard to see the results of your work on home-cycle," West added. "But when we're on deployment, doing missions, there is a real sense of pride associated with knowing that the planes coming back from successful missions wouldn't have flown if it wasn't for your hard work."

With a little more than six months before their next deployment, Sailors in VP-4's phase maintenance shop are preparing the workhorses of their squadron's upcoming missions. Dedicated to their never-ending task, the maintainers are contributing to the overall readiness of the fleet.

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