Encompassing almost 1.5 million square feet at the very Western portion of Naval Air Station North Island (NASNI), the Fleet Readiness Center Southwest (FRCSW) Test Line Support Facility is the hub for test flying the aircraft the command’s artisans repair and maintain.
The sprawling compound includes an 800,000 square-foot aircraft ramp with parking for numerous aircraft, three climate-controlled storage hangars, out-buildings, seven fabric work shelters and a main support building (785).
Unless an aircraft is trucked onto NASNI, the FRCSW Test Line is the first – and last – stop during its visit to the command.
“The squadron maintenance charts and log books are some of the first things we go through upon induction of any aircraft; it’s the first step in the process before an aircraft is turned over to its product line,” said Aviation Machinist Mate Chief Petty Officer Gabriel McConico, maintenance controller of the FRCSW Test Line.
On the reverse side of that process, the Test Line and log sell procedures include final ground checks, test flights, and a review of all documentation to ensure that the work has been completed and certified.
In accordance with Navy regulations, any aircraft completing depot-level rework is required to undergo at least one Functional Check Flight (FCF) prior to delivery to the fleet to determine the quality of work and the airworthiness of the aircraft. The FCF is the final step in Test Line procedures.
Three of the four major aircraft product lines at FRCSW bring their aircraft to the Test Line: F/A-18 Hornets, E-2C Hawkeyes, C-2A Greyhounds, and H-53 Super Stallions all must be flight checked at the flight line.
The only aircraft that doesn’t pass through the Test Line is the H-60 Seahawk helicopter; though the aircraft may be stored in facilities there on a short-term basis, McConico noted.
Returning more than 40 F/A-18 Hornet fighter aircraft to the fleet during fiscal year (FY) 2017, FRCSW test flies more legacy Hornets than any other airframe.
The Test Line ‘selling’ phase begins once the aircraft is transported from Building 94 where all repairs and maintenance procedures are performed.
Once under the cognizance of the Test Line staff, it is checked, prepared, test flown, and returned to the customer.
The Hornets are also weighed when returned from maintenance because modifications or repairs can affect the aircraft’s weight. The planes are weighed again after painting (prior to delivery to the customer) to make sure they’re within an acceptable limit.
Artisans assigned to the F/A- 18 Test Line program include aircraft examiners (AE) and an examination evaluator (EE).
AEs also assess the aircraft’s functions to ensure a safe and proper flight. This includes the hydraulics, fuel system, air conditioning, engines, and cabin pressure.
“AEs are the initial ones who issue discrepancies, fix discrepancies and decide when the aircraft is ready,” McConico said.
While AEs turn the avionics on, actual system checks are performed by EEs, electricians, and electronic integrated systems mechanics.
The F/A-18 Test Line artisans face few barriers they cannot overcome at the flight line to ensure a safe initial test flight.
“But on occasion certain issues can come up where we would have to return the aircraft to Building 94,” McConico noted. “If a new message is released that requires replacement of an inboard leading edge flap, for example, or if there’s a technical directive requiring an update, then we would send the aircraft back for things like that.”
In contrast to the volume of F/A-18 Hornets, only nine E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning and eight C-2A Greyhound transport aircraft were inducted and returned to the fleet in FY 2017.
Artisans comprised of AEs, mechanics, electricians, and avionic artisans prepare the turbo-propeller airframes for flight at the Test Line.
During induction a series of “dynamic tests” are performed on all systems to check their condition.
Dynamic tests are those that engage the engines, hydraulics, fuel, radar, and other systems used in the flight of the aircraft.
“From the initial induction to get to the production floor is dependent on available space, and can be about three to five weeks to get to Building 460 for the aircraft’s planned maintenance interval (PMI),” McConico said.
After PMI and any repairs, the aircraft are reassembled and returned to the Test Line where another round of dynamic tests are performed to ensure they meet pre-flight inspection status.
AEs test all of the systems except the avionics, which is tested by journeyman avionic artisans.
Solely serving Marine Corps squadrons throughout the west coast including Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, the FRCSW CH-53 Super Stallion program returned 10 helicopters to the Corps during FY 2017.
During induction the main rotor blades are removed and the aircraft is de-fueled.
Afterward, the aircraft is transported to Building 378 to undergo the Integrated Maintenance Program (IMP) that includes a variety of procedures including structural repairs to the fuselage and electrical wiring upgrades.
Work exceeding IMP specifications, like replacing engines or rotor heads that have exceeded their recommended hour or life limit, is often done by the Marines themselves to save money.
AEs are assigned to the Test Line and perform startups, systems, and electrical checks.
Unlike the F/A-18 and E2/C-2 programs, FRCSW does not have CH-53 pilots on staff. Instead, pilots from prospective squadrons are notified when an aircraft is ready for test flight and delivery.