Imagine ordering parts for a major auto repair shop that supplies hardware to maintain engines for 76 vehicles. Although it’s 2019, the newest vehicle in the fleet was built in 1962. Each of those 76 vehicles have eight engines, and their ability to operate is critical to national security.
Does this sound like a challenge?
This is a job that some of the employees at the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support’s Industrial Hardware supply chain perform every day in supporting the sustainability of the TF33 engines that power the Air Force’s B-52 Stratofortress, the service’s self-proclaimed “backbone of the manned strategic bomber force,” according to the Air Force’s B-52 fact sheet.
BUFF: Carrying the load for the long haul
Throughout its lifespan, flying in wars from Vietnam to Operation Enduring Freedom, the Boeing-designed B-52 has undergone upgrades to keep up with technology. But one thing that has remained constant are the eight Pratt & Whitney TF33 engines that carry the “Big Ugly Fat Fellow,” as the B-52 is sometimes referred to as, up to 8,800 miles at speeds as high as 650 miles per hour.
Since the B-52’s first flight in 1954, DLA Troop Support Industrial Hardware and its legacy organizations have procured the hardware used to maintain the aircraft and its engines. And while the Air Force is continuing its on-budget, on-schedule acquisition of the B-21 Raider, according to former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in a defense forum Dec. 1, 2018, B-52s are expected to continue flying.
“With an adequate sustainment and modernization focus, including new engines, the B-52 has a projected service life through 2050, remaining a key part of the bomber enterprise well into the future,” former Air Force Global Strike Command Commander Gen. Robin Rand said in a February 2018 outline of the future of the bomber force.
The same outline stated the Air Force’s target date for initial fielding of the B-21 is in the mid-2020’s. And while there is an acquisition plan in place to re-fit the B-52 with newer engines, no decision on the replacement engine has been made.
This leaves the sustainment of the aircraft’s TF33 engines a necessary challenge based on the aircraft’s age and part availability. But it’s a challenge that the Industrial Hardware team is no stranger to.
Keeping the fleet flying, part by part
It takes a team to keep up with TF33 hardware demands. IH’s Supply Chain Point of Contact office is the spearhead of Troop Support’s role, and works in partnership with DLA Aviation. The SCPOC is IH’s hub for expediting customer requests. Leading the charge for Troop Support is SCPOC specialist and 18-year Air Force Reserve supply specialist Finney Philip, who couldn’t have been happier to take on the task.
“I’m proud to be on this project – it’s personal for me,” Philip said. “The B-52 is one of the first aircraft I worked with at Barksdale Air Force Base.”
Philip was sent a list of priority items for the sustainment of the TF33 from DLA Aviation in November 2018, including 109 items that IH procures. Although the task of buying hardware for an aircraft that hasn’t been manufactured in 57 years sounds daunting, it’s one the IH Integrated Support Team handles almost every day.
“Because the items are so old, we often have difficulties either getting the part, or with pricing of the part because it hasn’t been made in a very long time,” Andrea Wicker, the IH Integrated Support Team Chief, said. “If it requires tooling or starting up a whole new production line because it hasn’t been made in so long, it’s an added expense for the vendor or original equipment manufacturer that we have to absorb.”
Wicker said although it is a challenge, the team of acquisition specialists do their best to get the warfighter what they need for a fair and reasonable cost.
According to Aviation’s TF33 Weapon System Program Manager Melissa Miles, the IH team has found “… affordable sustainment solutions ensuring the safety and operational viability of the TF33 through the remainder of its program life,” for two-thirds of the original 108 stock listed items needed to support the engine.
With Philip’s lead and the dedication of the IH team, all of the IH-assigned items are getting where they need to be, and Philip and the team at DLA Aviation closely monitor their statuses to make sure they’re on track for acquisition and delivery.
“Everybody is working so hard. From the material planners, the buyers, post-award, pre-award and even some of the manufacturers,” Philip said. “They’ve been able to expedite some of [the parts] and help us out a lot. It’s a great team effort.”
Although the B-52 isn’t the only aircraft that uses the TF33, it is the one that will use it the longest, according to Aviation’s B-52 Weapons System Manager Alonzo Miller. Some B-52s may get new engines as early as 2026 with the goal to refit the entire fleet by 2034, but the B-52 is currently scheduled to have the TF-33 until the engine is retired in 2045.
And they will be needed.
Miller added that the B-52 supports the U.S. nuclear triad, conventional operations and training requirements. If the TF33 engine is not available, it would decrease B-52 availability and reduce mission readiness - one of the Department of Defense’s top priorities.
“The TF33-103 engine powers the B-52 aircraft,” Miller said. “No engine, no flight!”
With that perspective, and the continued teamwork in the months to come, the IH team is pressing on with the ongoing TF33 support initiative, ready to provide that warfighter support.
“I couldn’t be more proud to take on this mission,” Philip said. “I’m glad to know that I’m part of a mission that keeps these aircraft flying and adds to our nation’s security.”