Keep 'Em Flying — Abroad

by Arthur L Fornoff,
Service Manager, Bell Aircraft Co

Art Fornoff went to England in June to establish assembly and servicing facilities for Bell Aircraft, and returned the middle of August. Traveling by transatlantic Clipper, the crossings were accomplished without incident. He is leaving again, early in November, to continue his good work in Britain.

Eloquent testimony to the value of Fornoff's service abroad is contained in a recent letter from Edward Warner, Vice Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board, who himself spent some months in England early this year. He writes: "The role of the American industry's service representatives in England and in other combat areas is of enormous importance in getting the American equipment into effective service, and so to the general success of the war effort. Even the best of aircraft and the best of operating organizations will benefit by being properly introduced to one another; and it is immensely helpful to have new types accompanied or preceded to the war area by properly qualified factory representatives, acquainted not only with the details of design, construction and maintenance requirements, but with the tests undergone and the operating experience acquired in the United States. It is not easy to spare men of the right stamp from the factories, hard-pressed as they are by the problems of production; but no one could have spent any time in England in recent months without feeling the importance of assigning such men as Mr Fornoff (of whose services I have heard very flattering report from England) to stations in Britain. There have been a number of such men, representing a number of companies; but during my own time in England the supply seemed always to fall well short of the need."


Acceptance of American airplanes abroad depends not only on the quality and performance of individual types. Another important factor, too frequently neglected in the past, is the adequate supervision of maintenance service.

When in the early fall of this year Airacobras began reaching their fighting stations in Britain our service men had long been planning, planning against every conceivable eventuality which might prevent these planes from rendering the maximum service for which they were so painstakingly designed and built. On the basis of subsequent experience, the organization of service and maintenance abroad has resolved itself into eight major phases;

  1. Preliminary preparations here.
  2. Establishment of erection base abroad.
  3. Flight testing after assembly.
  4. Inspection to determine operational fitness as of that date.
  5. . Preparations for modifications to make plane operational.
  6. . Day-to-day task of keeping planes in service operational.
  7. Provision of trained personnel for instruction in actual overhaul and repair.
  8. Coordination with "sister" firms abroad.

The Expeditionary Force

Although on an infinitely smaller scale, we nevertheless planned our British expedition with a thoroughness that would have done credit to Hitler's own Blitzkrieg commanders. Drilled into each man was the resolution that nothing short of total demolition should stand between these fighters and the thin air high above Britain. Moreover, they were instructed to assemble and relay to the United States all possible information to assist us in providing better and better airplanes as time went on. The various phases of the program are discussed in the order listed.

One. To date, seven of our ablest engineer-mechanics have been selected to assist me in supervising service and instructing British mechanics in maintenance of our airplanes. At the outset, a number of complete servicing kits were assembled. They were sent by different routes at different times to insure the safe arrival of at least one in spite of possible mishaps, and a master reference set remained in the United States.

Each kit contained a complete set of tools necessary to perform any repairs, complete sets of blueprints and drawings and all operating and service manuals. Each man was advised that he need not be financially responsible for any tools left in England, for it was felt that to leave these tools wherever a need existed was far more valuable to us than the cost of replacement. In the case of large or special tools which were to be supplied under contract or by the customer, complete blueprints were included so they might be duplicated in an emergency.

Two. As soon as the erection base was selected, our men went to work setting up assembly lines patterned on those of the home plants. We arranged for the procurement and training of local labor. We endeavored to train these workers to perform a few operations efficiently at a single station in order to train our crews in the shortest possible time. Dollies, workstands, hoists, all had to be in readiness.

Three. As the aircraft were assembled, utmost care had to be exercised to see that each airplane was in perfect shape to deliver a safe and satisfactory performance. Particularly in view of the many handicapping circumstances was it necessary to conduct the most rigid inspection of each plane and its equipment before okaying it for flight.

Four. Following the completion of successful flight testing, operational groups inspect the plane to determine what modifications need to be made in design or equipment to bring the original model up to date in accordance with operational requirements as of that time. Under wartime conditions improvements are developed and applied with surprising rapidity and certain operational requirements must be met which are rarely foreseen prior to actual combat operations. With respect to the Airacobras, only minor changes were found to be necessary.

For example, the antenna location might be satisfactory for normal operations, but might constitute a real hazard to a weary fighter pilot jumping out of his cockpit in absolute darkness. It must be moved to avoid any possibility of injury to the pilot. Ammunition boxes, oil tanks, refueling points, Prestone tank, all must be easy of access and simple to find and service in darkness and under all weather conditions. Guns must be so installed that they can be pulled out and replaced in a matter of minutes. All such modifications must be made before the plane can be accepted for combat duties.

Five. Not only must the modifications be made on the aircraft already completed and those under assembly, but preparations must be made to see that these changes are accomplished with a minimum loss of time on all planes in process of manufacture and to come.

Six. Once the planes are made operational and placed in active service, there begins the long steady grind of keeping each one serviceable, day in and day out, under all weather conditions, no matter where it might be. This cannot always be accomplished by merely following the letter of a legal contract. It requires compliance with the spirit of a contract of good intent which transcends ordinary concepts of servicing obligations.

In this connection, I have never forgotten the attitude of one of my earliest employers. He was in the automobile business. "Service," he told me, "is nothing more than being pleasant to the customer to keep him satisfied. If a recent buyer comes back and wants you to look over his car, just stand on the running board and look over the top; technically, you will have fulfilled your obligation."

My deep personal conviction ever since has been that he confused "looking over" with "overlooking." He overlooked the important thing. You can't keep a customer sold throughout the years by such tactics. So, our service men are not likely to quibble over the line where their responsibility ends and some one else's begins, nor do they wait to "let George do it" or haggle over items of expense. Nothing short of an act of God or manmade catastrophe of major proportions will deter them from procuring spares or tools, effectuating repairs or whatever else is necessary to keep their ships flying. To this end, they are given all cooperation and encouragement possible by the remainder of our organization.

Seven. Since, obviously, a Bell Aircraft service man could not always be available as the numbers of Airacobras in service swelled rapidly, we exercised the utmost care in the selection of men to serve as instructors to British assembly workers and service teams. Four specialists were chosen on the basis of their experience and the ability to impart their knowledge to others. They comprised a structures and stress engineer, a man who knew all the answers on assembly and production, an instructor on repair and overhaul, and an electrical engineer who was thoroughly familiar with all accessories and equipment.

The whole problem of adequate maintenance of American equipment abroad has been aided greatly by the British decision to send "service teams" to America to be thoroughly schooled by various manufacturers in the repair and maintenance of their own types of aircraft.

Eight. For the various American manufacturers supplying planes to the British, "sister" firms have been appointed among Britain's aeronautical producers who are responsible for the assembly, overhaul and repair of a specific American product. Naturally, the fullest cooperation and mutual assistance between the "sister" firms of the two nations is essential. The American manufacturers can make a large contribution by seeing to it that their sister firms are provided with the most complete information possible. They should be sent operation manuals, standards books, all blueprints, complete stress analyses. The American producer also should see to it that the British concern receives promptly the same complete information on all accessories and every bit of equipment on the airplane, no matter where the origin of supply.

The Broader Concept of Service

"Sales and service" has become a common phrase in modern industry. But service all too often is just an afterthought to sales. The Bell Aircraft organization has pioneered in this respect by divorcing the sales and service departments and giving them co-equal status.

Service, with related problems of maintenance, is integrated with all the productive processes from design to operation of the finished product. When the ideal design for a part or mechanism is produced, not only are production planning and operational engineers called in to study it from the standpoint of practicability of fabrication and assembly, but the service engineer as well, to pass on it from the standpoint of simplifying and minimizing servicing. Likewise, if experience demonstrates an inherent disadvantage of a particular part or accessory, or its location, from a maintenance point of view, service men consult with the design engineers to determine if some modification cannot be made which will simplify maintenance or speed up servicing.

Always, one guiding principle dominates the thinking of Bell Aircraft engineers. No matter how fine their airplane, it is still worth less than the poorest aircraft so long as it has to remain on the ground. It can only be a good airplane while it is in the air or all set for the takeoff.

Since the time element is so important, particularly in the servicing of military aircraft, structural features and location of accessories and equipment rank with performance and efficiency of operation in the overall effectiveness of an airplane. A particular feature of the Airacobra's design which has proven its value in this respect is the method of wing attachment to the fuselage.

A single set of jacks is all that is necessary for erection or disassembly, eliminating the need for an overhead hoist of any kind. If a wing or landing gear must be replaced or repaired, no crane is needed. Only in removing or installing the engine is such a rig required. This greatly facilitates repair and replacement in the field.

Use of the tricycle landing gear has also been an aid to servicing, because the fuselage and wings remain in level position when the craft is on the ground. The fact that the airplane, itself, provides a level platform on which service men may work perhaps seems unimportant, but it is of great value, particularly in the field, where special work platforms are not available.

The great number of inspection plates, as well as the cowling plates, attached only by Dzus Fasteners, also aids during the servicing of the Airacobra. Availability of power plant control and fuel lines and accessory equipment is of paramount importance to a crew charged with keeping aircraft in operational shape, during wartime conditions especially.

The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from our experience is this: the responsibility of the plane manufacturer should not be regarded as ended when the planes and spares are delivered according to contracts. If the effectiveness of his product is to be fully realized, the far-sighted manufacturer will voluntarily see to it that his product gets every chance to perform properly.

To see the wisdom of this course, we need only reverse the circumstances of the two nations. If we were waging a war and obtained British planes of quality and usefulness we would naturally try to utilize them. However, if for the lack of replacement parts, proper tools at the proper place, or trained mechanics to spare who could perform the work, we had to push them aside and do our utmost with familiar equipment, we would not be all to blame.

But — suppose there were an Englishman at hand or on call, ready and qualified to help us use it and tactfully showing us how to get the most out of it. You may be sure there would be small likelihood of it deteriorating in a shed or under a tree some place for lack of a cotter pin or a wiring diagram.

This article was originally published in the December, 1941, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 40, no 12, pp 60-61, 188.
The original article includes a photo of the author with two engineers and two photos of Airacobras in RAF livery on the flightline.
Plane photos are credited to British Press Service, British Combine.