DLA Aviation helps keep the Thunderbolt II mission ready

By Cathy Hopkins DLA Aviation Public Affairs

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Trying to maintain an antique machine is a challenge for any collector or parts provider whether it’s a bicycle, a car, or a multiple-million-dollar weapon system flying critical missions keeping Americans safe at home and abroad.

The A-10 is one such system whose length of service has recently been extended until 2022.  A small Air Force fighter jet, the Warthog or “Hog” is an attack aircraft, providing close-air support missions for ground troops since 1975. 

Defense Logistics Agency Aviation has been providing for and caring for America’s warfighters since its gates first opened in 1942 at what is now known as Defense Supply Center Richmond, Virginia. 

Today, DLA Aviation is the aviation demand and supply manager for Defense Logistics Agency with more than 3,300 civilian and military personnel in 18 U.S. locations supporting more than 1,340 weapon systems and managing 1.2 million national stock number items, industrial retail supply and depot-level repairable acquisitions.

The A-10 is one of those 1,340 weapon systems, most of which are in the operations and support phase of their life-cycle management sometime referred to as the sustainment phase.

Emery Cody, who works for DLA Aviation Customer Operations’ Directorate, has been the weapon system program manager for the A-10 Thunderbolt II for more than five years. He certainly agrees that this aircraft is one of the Air Force’s oldest aircraft after flying for more than four decades.

“I’m a lobbyist or advocate for the A-10,” said Cody.  “I interact with the A-10 Program Office and the military services then bring the intelligence I gather back to DLA’s demand and supply planners and supplier relationship managers.”

The Thunderbolt II was originally built by Fairchild Republic, a company that has since gone out of business.  Northrup Gorman purchased most of Fairchild’s technical data rights when they went out of business and has been providing engineering support for the aircraft.  DLA has a licensing agreement with Northrop Grumman to use the Fairchild drawings for procurement.    

The current A-10C model is flown by Air Force squadrons within the active Air Force, Air Reserve and Air National Guard across 10 airbases.  A-10 missions are combat search and rescue, forward air controller (airborne), strike control and reconnaissance, counter air and counter sea.

Steven Utz has a unique perspective on the A-10. He served as a crew chief while on active duty in the Air Force from 1998-2002 and now as a supervisory quality assurance specialist in DLA Aviation’s Supplier Operations Directorate, supporting the overhaul of the airframe by supplying structural components that are starting to fail. 

“I feel very lucky to have been assigned to the A-10 aircraft. It was easy to work on, and was less hazardous than other fighter aircraft,” said Utz.  “We did experience supply issues though. We always had a ‘cann bird’ that we would cannibalize parts from. It was the only way to keep the rest of the fleet flying. I never understood why it took so long to get parts. Now, I understand that it's not that simple. There are some parts that have not been manufactured since the A-10 was originally built. Some of those suppliers are no longer around.”

Roy Peay, deputy chief, Aviation and Airframes Division in DLA Aviation’s Supplier Operations Directorate, agrees with Utz that it is challenging to continue supporting the aircraft.

“Once an airframe reaches 40 years old, things begin to break that weren't anticipated, particularly airframe structural components that comprise the skeletal interior of the aircraft,” said Peay. “Suppliers that were in production for these spares early on have often moved on to manufacture other products, rid themselves of tooling that has grown dilapidated, or gone out of business.” Peay said several A-10 national stock numbers are on long-term support contracts and they add NSNs as needed.

Cody said there are approximately 9,600 parts unique to the A-10 valued at more than $82.5 million, and over 25,500 common parts that would be used in the A-10, as well as other aircraft.   Utz said of the unique NSNs, DLA Aviation manages an active population of about 2,846, meaning there has been a demand for those parts within the last five years.

The A-10 fleet has been improved upon many times through the years.  The most recent improvement is the enhanced wing assembly (EWA).  The Air Force allowed the Boeing Company to scan portions of the aircraft and create 3-dimensional models (drawings) from the scans. Boeing also did extensive work on converting existing legacy 2-D paper drawings into 3-D digital models. Working with revised drawings, DLA is procuring the EWAs and mechanics are replacing the old wings which had become uneconomical to continue to remove and repair.

Updating the old is one of the ways DLA is able to sustain support for the A-10s. New, updated 3-D drawings minimize misinterpretation of legacy 2-D drawing information and also allow for more efficient computer-controlled manufacturing of parts. 

Utz said in general supporting aged aircraft is a difficult task; not only are the original technology and manufacturing methods antiquated, but the aircraft don't always conform to the original designs.

“I commend the Air Force for allowing Boeing to convert legacy drawings and create 3-D models for the EWA project. I wish they would start doing this for other aircraft as well,” he said.

Cody is keeping in close contact with the A-10 Program Office ensuring that all needed items are procurable, stocked and on hand.  Jennifer Olson is the A-10 Acquisition and Sustainment Support chief in the Air Force A-10 Program Management Office at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

The wings are an Air Force-managed item that DLA provides replacement parts for - panels, bolts, and structural parts. DLA is currently stocking NSNs for the original and enhanced wing assemblies. Some of the wing panels aren’t interchangeable between aircraft models and warfighters require parts for each model flown.

Dan Phillips, chief, A-10 System Program Office at Hill Air Force Base’s Engineering Branch in Utah said on a case-by-case basis, Air Force engineers are also creating 3-D drawings for other needed parts. The same NSN part numbers are being used for some legacy parts with updated drawings, and for others, new part numbers are being assigned.

Sometimes, sourcing parts is a challenge, said Cody.  Phillips said 3-D drawings assist in the manufacture or reverse engineering of parts like in the case where Air National Guard machinists in Boise, Idaho, fabricated repair parts for a structural repair from an incident when a bird struck the wing while the aircraft was in flight.

“The 3D models were developed through the EWA contract or other Air Force sustaining engineering-funded efforts,” said Phillips. “The EWA models include not only structural components and assemblies, but also various subsystems such as hydraulics, fuel, and electric.  The Air Force’s sustaining engineering-funded modeling has also started to model the rest of the airframe structure and the aircraft’s remaining subsystems.”  3-D models were also provided as part of the technical data package to procure new engine nacelle structures (the casing around an engine).

Olson said the EWAs are just one example of the creativity needed in sustaining mission-ready aircraft and cites Air Force collaborations with Tooele Army Depot, Toole, Utah, on the coating of ballistic foam as another.

Ballistic foam in the A-10 aircraft had degraded to the point it had become ineffective to prevent fire and damage in the event of a ballistic impact into a fuel cell. 

“Because it is a necessary component of the overall survivability of the A-10,” said Olson. “We have determined that this material must be changed out 100 percent.  The coating is a flame-arrest or burn-barrier coating that prevents some burning and prevents the foam from degrading as quick in normal environments.” She said the coating meets the full requirement for ballistic penetration survivability.

A-10 pilots saw combat in 2014 when they flew missions out of Turkey against ISIS as part of Operation Inherent Resolve targeting Islamic State militants in central and northwestern Iraq. Then again, as part of Operation Tidal Wave II (2015), where, along with Air Force AC-130 crews, A-10 pilots helped destroy a convoy of more than 100 ISIL-operated oil tanker trucks in Syria.

In addition to operational support for unit maintenance done in the field, DLA Aviation also provides retail logistics support for major programmed maintenance performed at the Air Logistics Complex in Ogden, Utah, and at a contractor-operated depot in South Korea.

Utz said they didn’t have the structural issues back when he was in the service that the fleet is having now.

“The airframes were nearing their expected service life when I worked on them.  They have only gotten older and more fatigued since then,” he said.  “The Air Force is repairing parts of the fuselage.  My division here at DLA Aviation manages some of these fuselage components that need to be replaced.  Since they were not intended to ever be replaced, DLA is having some difficulty finding manufacturers for these parts.  That is a task I am staying involved in.”

Utz said there are no other aircraft in the Air Force’s inventory that can perform close air support like the A-10.

“The A-10 is truly an amazing machine.  I was proud to work on it and now I am proud that I get to support it,” he said.  Utz also continues to serve in the Air Reserve as a master sergeant supporting the Stratotanker (KC-135R) aircraft at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.