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FRCE helps Marines boost readiness with composite repair course
Story by Heather Wilburn on 09/24/2019
A training program recently offered at Fleet Readiness Center East prepared service members to make aircraft and component repairs at the squadron level, which will increase flight-line readiness by reducing aircraft downtime.
Five Marines graduated from the Cross Platform Advanced Composite Repair course, a three-week program led by trainers at FRCE. These Marines now have the ability make local repairs and modifications to aircraft components made of composite materials advanced materials used on newer aircraft that are lighter and stronger than metals rather than having to send the parts or aircraft back to a depot for service. This on-site capability speeds up the repair process, which keeps more aircraft ready for the nation’s warfighters.
“We’re increasing fleet readiness,” said Charles Taylor, the composite fabricator training leader at FRCE. “The Marines who come through this class have a better understanding of exactly what goes into a structural composite repair. The class gets them more comfortable with the process, thus improving the quality of repairs they do.”
“It’s going to be very useful, because 90 percent of the material we use on the new aircraft are all composites, whether it be fiberglass or carbon fiber. It’s the future,” added Staff Sgt. Christopher Bruns, assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Training Squadron 204 at Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina. “As long as we have the materials with us at the (squadron) level, we can get the repairs done more efficiently, using the knowledge we just learned, and get the birds back in the fight.”
Organizational-level maintenance, performed by operating units, includes repairs and minor adjustments that do not require shop facilities, or the removal or installation of components. Because advanced composite repair addressed subjects and skills not taught in the basic course, graduates will be able to complete more repairs at the O-level, Taylor explained.
“The previous class covered basic fiberglass, and filling and drilling holes,” Taylor said. “This course covers a wider range of composite repairs on multiple aircraft.”
Students spend a week reviewing the essentials of composite repairs, including facility requirements, tools, and fasteners, and key repair methods. Once the students have refreshed their basic composite skills, they spend the next two weeks learning to perform double vacuum debulk repairs on V-22 and F-18 aircraft. The Navy developed the technique as a way to strengthen composite materials by removing air during the curing process.
“The biggest challenge in composite repair is how to get the air out of the material to make it stronger,” said Rob Thompson, a materials engineer specializing in composites at FRCE. “There are a bunch of different techniques for doing this, but the double vacuum debulk process is unique because it can be done out in the fleet without having some of the specialized equipment we have at the depot.”
It’s important to have these advanced repair capabilities available in the field because construction of the fleet’s newer aircraft relies heavily on composite materials. Functional components like those in the engine or gearbox aren’t likely to be made of composites, but the materials are widely uses in aircraft structures.
“On the V-22, most of the exterior of the aircraft is composite,” Thompson said. “Some of the structural pieces inside are composite, the rotor blades are composite any part of the aircraft that’s carrying a load can be composite. If it’s not moving on the aircraft, there’s a good chance it’s made of a composite.”
The most common composite repairs include patching holes in an aircraft fuselage and fixing chafing or chipping damage on the edge of an exterior component. The techniques learned by the students can be applied to any aircraft component made of a composite material.
The wide range of topics covered means the training can seem difficult, but the varied curriculum makes the course especially beneficial, said Lance Cpl. Joseph Pascale, assigned to Marine Attack Squadron 542 at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina.
“I learned how to do all sorts of repairs that, up until now, I had no experience with,” he said. “Some of what we covered is stuff we don’t see all the time, so it’s harder to find a situation in which we’d get on-the-job training for that. By doing it here, when the situation comes up, we’re ready for it.”
Providing hands-on experience is important, because it ensures there’s someone ready and able to complete these types of repairs, Taylor explained. The additional experience also increases the quality of the repairs, which boosts aviation readiness.
Fleet Readiness Center East provides depot-level maintenance in support of Naval and Marine Corps aviation. Depot-level maintenance at industrial facilities like FRCE supports the O-level and intermediate-level activities by providing engineering support and performing maintenance that is beyond the capabilities of the lower levels.
FRCE is North Carolina’s largest maintenance, repair, overhaul and technical services provider, with more than 4,200 civilian, military and contract workers. Its annual revenue exceeds $720 million. The depot serves as an integral part of the greater U.S. Navy; Naval Air Systems Command; and Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers.