FRCE Looks at Corrosion-Fighting Tech
A team working at the Fleet Readiness Center East in Cherry Point, North Carolina, has recently examined new possibilities for quickly and accurately detecting corrosion and preventing its spread on Navy- and Corps-owned military aircraft.
FRCE, located within the Marine Corps Air Station, is touted as North Carolina’s largest maintenance, repair, overhaul and technical services provider, with more than 4,000 civilian, military and contract workers. Its annual revenue exceeds $1 billion.
The depot provides service to the fleet while functioning as an integral part of the greater U.S. Navy; Naval Air Systems Command; and Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers.
According to the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, the aircraft maintained at FRCE operate within some of the planet’s most extreme weather conditions, which often require costly and time-consuming corrosion inspection and repair processes.
To better mitigate corrosion and costly repairs, the team at FRCE started working under an F-35 Lighting II program, where members observed the demonstration of a tool created to help identify corrosion on a variety of aircraft coatings and help prevent its spread.
Through the use of a mid-wave infrared camera to visually penetrate aircraft coatings and record images of the surface below, the Grey Gecko Real-Time Inspection Tool, or GRIT system, aims to reliably identify corrosion and help facilitate faster, less objective corrosion inspections that reduce corrosion growth and associated costs, and increase aircraft availability.
“Corrosion is a recurring theme across all forms of aviation, resulting in huge cost and fleet availability impacts,” said Matt Crisp, FRCE site lead for the F-35 Joint Program Office, who organized the event. “Current detection methods for most aircraft involve visual inspection using traditional tools. These inspections are time consuming, sometimes require additional efforts like removing paint, and can be highly subjective based on inspector techniques, experience and attention to detail.
“The idea is to produce clear, easily understandable pictures of damaged areas that can be immediately shared with leadership, maintainers, investigators and customers,” said Ron Stearns, business development director at Grey Gecko. “It’s designed to be used plane-side by traditional maintenance personnel, and to complement phased non-destructive inspection intervals. One of the things that we're very proud of is that it can act as a vector to enhance or better target other methods that are prescribed in the maintenance manuals.”
Grey Gecko estimates use of the GRIT for non-destructive inspection can reduce aircraft downtime caused by corrosion by up to 25% and reduce the inspection manpower requirement by more than 50% in some applications.
As part of the demonstration at FRCE, members of the Naval Air Systems Command Advanced Technology and Innovation Team at FRCE, alongside a multidisciplinary group of engineers, discussed the tool with Grey Gecko’s designers. In addition, the group also got to received hands-on experience by testing the tool on various aircraft panels and FRCE’s F-35 maintenance trainer airframe.
According to Crisp, the demonstration, which was a first hosted by the F-35 program, was scheduled to familiarize the group with the product’s manufacturer, evaluate the equipment and its capabilities and limitations, and explore the potential for the tool’s use in both depot and fleet environments.
“Part of this effort is to go back and sharpen our pencils on how we could integrate this new functionality into our existing corrosion and inspection programs to fully utilize its capability and get the most efficiency out of its use,” Crisp said. “Each team had the opportunity to ask questions, get hands on testing, and even test some of their own peculiar parts. Holistically, the equipment was very interesting and seemed to work well. The challenge now is to figure out who can get the most benefit out of this, and how to go about making this a reality.”
Jamaine Clemmons, ATI Team lead at FRCE, echoed Crisp and agreed that the demonstration was a success.
“Many onsite demos give you an opportunity to get hands-on experience with a technology, compare it to your use case, as well as look for additional opportunities to test it out on,” Clemmons explained. “The vendor was able to demo their capability for the stakeholders to detect corrosion under paint on a few panels that were pre-corroded and painted over to various thicknesses.
“Understanding that this was the main capability of the technology, we wanted to take the opportunity to test it out on various primers, topcoats, and thicknesses for multiple platforms to better evaluate the system and look for opportunities for refinement and expansion with the utilization of the tool. That’s the beauty of developing, maturing, advancing, and refining a technology,” Clemmons continued. “My team is currently in the process of gathering feedback from all the stakeholders in attendance and providing that feedback to the company for potential further development and expansion into other coatings.”
Although the GRIT demonstration was organized by the F-35 program, Clemmons further reported that the exercise fell right in line with the ATI Team’s mission of developing solutions for the multiple aircraft supported by FRCE. Moving forward, the F-35 team plans to conduct additional work with the ATI Team to observe additional technologies that have potential benefit for both F-35 and other fleet support teams and maintenance, repair and overhaul operations.
“We want to focus on technology across the entire technology readiness level spectrum; therefore, we can identify quick wins to implement within a maintenance, repair and overhaul environment, while also being forward-leaning into the next generation of technology for fifth-generation and beyond aircraft,” added Clemmons.
“We as the F-35 depot team at Cherry Point hope to keep hosting and engaging in similar events to evaluate new technology and how we can integrate it into the fleet and depot environments to reduce time to repair, program sustainment costs, and increase the availability of aircraft in the fleet,” he concluded. “This is our first demo event using the newly acquired F-35 maintenance/test trainer airframe, but we have several others already scheduled and others in discussion for planning in the future. We are excited to have this asset at our disposal and what we can do with it to pour value back into the sustainment of the F-35 program.”