"Keep 'Em Flying!"
On the billboards and the radio, emblazoned across the country in newspapers and magazines and on the lips of Americans, young and old, the slogan "Keep 'Em Flying" seems to have rung the bell in the minds of Mr and Mrs John Public. Little do Mr and Mrs Public realize that the tremendous task of fulfilling their maxim is one delegated not to our tremendous production facilities but rather to the maintenance organizations of our military air services. And a prodigious task it is!
Strangely enough, there is little precedent around which such large scale maintenance may be planned. Certainly there is little to be derived from the last war. The airline systems, with their smoothly functioning scheduled operations are not sufficiently mobile to permit the extraction of many lessons. Our military systems, on a peace time basis up to the beginning of hostilities abroad, must undergo an abrupt expansion completely beyond the realms of comparison with any similar program by virtue of the size of the undertaking.
Recognizing the importance and enormity of the job to be done, on April 29, 1941 the Air Corps created the new Maintenance Command at Wright Field. A completely new branch of the Air Corps organization, the Maintenance Command has already made deep inroads into the maze of problems presented by the maintenance of our new Air Force.
It will be of interest to review some of these problems. The modern fighting airplane is a complex bit of machinery to maintain in operating condition. With the advent of high output, turbosupercharged engines, complicated hydraulic systems, automatic power plant controls and innumerable other advancements, all applied in a different manner to different types of aircraft, maintenance problems mount to formidable heights in direct proportion to the number of aircraft being operated. Add to this the inevitability of the most difficult operating conditions imaginable, for the days are gone when work can be accomplished in the warm recesses of a well-lighted hangar, and some idea of the heartbreaking task may be had.
The British have found that under actual conditions of war, it is impractical to keep more than a very few aircraft in a hangar at the same time. They must be spread around a field, under trees or camouflaged to prevent loss due to bombing. The maintenance must go on, however, in spite of the ravages of the elements.
Aircraft returning from combat flights may require new wings, engines, or other major components. These changes must be made in the open under the most trying conditions. Maintenance equipment, then, must be designed for just such conditions. Aircraft jacks, used to lift the planes to check landing gear operation, must not sink into soft ground when the weight of the aircraft is applied. When the airplane is jacked up, a gasoline driven hydraulic test rig must be used, since no power is available for electric driven equipment. If an engine is to be changed, a portable crane must be available to swing the old engine off and the new one on.
Aircraft damaged so severely that repair is impractical in the field must be returned to the major repair depot. We have seen aircraft return with entire sections of the fuselage, tail group or wing shot away. One aircraft actually completed its mission with one entire bay of the fuselage shot away, leaving the interior open to the airstream. At times these damages are not sufficiently great to justify returning the plane to a depot. It is then a squadron maintenance problem. A portable workshop with drills, riveting equipment, and a source of power supply for operating the equipment must be used for this type work. Generally speaking, a repair job requiring less than 48 hours is accomplished in the field.
The question of the proper equipment for field repairs is a vital one. A great deal of foresight and planning now in the selection and design of maintenance equipment will make the maintenance man's job an easier one later. Above all, the equipment must be mobile as a unit or "en masse". Operations in Europe have demonstrated that armies must move rapidly and can place little reliance on fixed base maintenance activities. The equipment must be carefully selected to permit the accomplishment of any field service job which may be presented.
Aircraft forced down away from the operating base are often damaged beyond the resources of the field repair station. In England these aircraft are quickly surveyed, and if repairable are given the necessary temporary repairs to permit the aircraft to be ferried to the Depot. Aircraft not so repairable are likely to be scrapped. Surface transportation of aircraft in England is difficult due to the narrow confines of the highways.
In most localities in this country it is possible to convey moderate sized aircraft by highway to a depot. Activities outside the boundaries of the United States are likely to be more restricted, however, and necessitate, in some cases, the abandoning of damaged aircraft because of the exorbitant cost of bringing them to a depot. In any event, special equipment and trained personnel are required to handle the survey repair, or transportation of equipment to a depot. Under wartime conditions, this job is a particularly important one since scarcely a single large-scale activity will pass without the necessity of retrieving damaged aircraft.
In general, it is much more practical to effect temporary field repairs to permit damaged aircraft to be flown to a major repair depot. These temporary repairs must be accomplished by a mobile field unit, either flown or transported by truck to the scene of the repair, and by personnel well versed in the emergency repair of any type of aircraft.
Our own Air Corps has a number of well-equipped and expertly staffed Air Repair depots. These are being augmented by additional depots located at strategic points throughout the United States. Some idea of the problem confronting these depots may be gained by a comparison of the problem to that of airline maintenance. Seventeen airlines operating approximately 500 transport aircraft require some 19 repair bases to overhaul and maintain their aircraft. Of these 19 bases, 7 will compare favorably with the smaller of the Air Corps repair depots. These bases include only the central overhaul facilities of the airlines and do not take into consideration the extensive service facilities required along the route of each line. Now, disregarding the smaller of the airline bases and assuming that the 7 large bases maintain all airline equipment, this would give us a ratio of one repair base to approximately 71 aircraft. This year the Air Corps will have over 12,000 aircraft! Assuming that under pressure each airline could handle the maintenance and overhaul of 200 aircraft, it would require 60 such maintenance bases to handle this year's production alone.
Of course, the Air Corps bases are being built on a scale more vast than has heretofore been dreamed of. But when one considers the number of engines, propellors, instruments, hydraulic units and thousands of other components which will require attention, some semblance of the magnitude of the Maintenance Command's responsibility may be had. There is apparently no limit to the number of aircraft to be built. As the number increases, the repair base problem grows in proportion. One solution to the problem in the future may be the establishment of large number of smaller yet completely-equipped units. Such an arrangement would permit easier accessibility of the repair bases by the operating units.
At present the transport service supplies admirable service to the maintenance groups. The rapid transportation of equipment to be overhauled from the operations base to the maintenance depots is as much a part of the maintenance job as the overhaul of the equipment. The maintenance bases have probably not yet begun to feel the first heavy load imposed by the new group of production aircraft being delivered to the air forces. Engines in these aircraft have not yet reached the time limit before overhaul. Probably a great number of them will reach this period at approximately the same time and some semblance of war time requirements will be evidenced. Of course, the only answer to maintenance on such a large scale is the application of production methods. The Army, Navy and some of the airlines have operated on this basis before, but never on the scale that will be necessary to properly care for the huge number of aircraft being delivered.
One of the greatest problems of proper maintenance is the procurement and allocation of parts to the proper place at the proper time. Strangely enough, one small part can hold up a quarter of a million dollar aircraft which might be sorely needed for a tactical mission of importance. Certain parts required for operations maintenance such as spark plugs, brake discs, fuel hoses, lines, clamps, etc, fall in the category of those mentioned above. A careful study of the parts situation as applied to each type of aircraft will permit the formulation of a list which, if supplied to the operating units, will alleviate any possibility of delays due to parts shortages. The overhaul bases are, of course, the major source of supply of parts and our own Air Corps now has vast stores of spares for all aircraft and equipment being operated.
One of the biggest problems encountered in Britain in the operation of large numbers of new type aircraft has been that of untrained personnel. When one realizes that the mechanics whom we consider to be competent now gained their training over a number of years experience and that those now being enlisted come from the rank and file of lawyers, clerks, farmers, and other citizenry not likely to have had much experience with problems, it is easy to realize that one of the major contingencies with which we are confronted is that of training. In all probability it is infinitely better to specialize these new men inasmuch as it is easier to teach them how to care for one item of equipment thoroughly than to require them to spread their training over a large number of items of equipment. This would mean then that we would have specialists on engines, propellers, instruments, hydraulics, armament, and, in fact, on virtually every aircraft component, rather than have the old type of aircraft mechanic who was supposed to know everything.
The British are now sending many men to America for training and they certainly have not failed to realize the necessity for specialization. The United States Army Air Corps has not neglected this phase of preparation as they have undertaken a very intensive program of training a large number of men as aircraft mechanics. The manufacturers have contributed materially toward this training program by assisting in the arrangement of programs pertaining to their particular product. This could be carried even further by the establishment of units at the present Air Corps schools in large aircraft manufacturing centers.
Only a few of the problems connected with the establishment of a maintenance program to care for our new air force have been emphasized above. There are others just as large in their scope but perhaps not quite so interesting to study. For example, the supply and handling of fuel, oil and lubricants for the air force is a job which is without glamor and romance supposedly attached to aviation, yet is so vital to the operation of aircraft that poor planning or unsystematic handling would seriously impair the functioning of the air force. The tremendous amount of detail work in keeping records of overhaul time and the deermination that engines arrive at repair bases at the proper time for overhaul, is one which must be particularly well planned in order that the repair bases do not become bogged down with a large number of engines at one time.
These and many more problems constitute the huge job that has been given our Maintenance Command. The major problems are: (1) equipment and bases, (2) parts and parts distribution, (3) personnel, and (4) transport. Our Maintenance Command has attacked these problems with a vengeance and it is indeed gratifying to see that so difficult a task is being handled so skilfully in the beginning. This portends a smoothly functioning future for the maintenance of our aircraft. It is strange that a job so important and so difficult receives so little publicity and ballyhoo, yet the type of men required to accomplish a job like this are usually those who shy from just such recognition.
Certainly we are well on our way towards the largest and finest air force in the world backed by the most complete and able maintenance organization ever conceived.
This article was originally published in the December, 1941, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 40, no 12, pp 58-59, 204.
The original article includes a photo of the author and 4 other photos.
Photos are not credited.