The map of the world that hangs on the break room wall at the On Wing Support center near the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) is speckled with little black, yellow, and red stick pins, 70 in all, each representing a far-flung location where the Cincinnati-based OWS team has been deployed.
When the calls come in—and they come in more often than you’d think—the needs can range from routine to critical. One day it could be Transportes Aereos del Continente Americano calling from El Salvador, requesting OWS’s aid in boroblending a couple of Stage 8 HPC blades on a CF34 engine. Another day, Southern Air might need technical assistance at its hangar in Leipzig. Or perhaps it’s SWISS International Airlines on the line, looking for a team to fly now to Baffin Island, 500 miles west of Greenland and a few clicks south of the Arctic Circle, to replace a 19,300-pound engine in sub-zero temperatures.
Good thing Austin Francis has such a dedicated crew. “We go everywhere,” he says. “I’ve got guys in Istanbul right now.”
Francis is the site leader for On Wing Support in Cincinnati, one of nine OWS sites situated around the globe—from London to Doha to Seoul to Rio—that provide maintenance and repair capabilities for GE Aviation customers. Think of them as urgent care facilities for the airline industry. Whether called upon to replace a fan blade, break an engine down for a scheduled inspection, or grapple with an emergency half way around the world, OWS’s objective is to get the job done right and as quick as possible.
Have Tools, Will Travel
Turnaround time (TAT) is a major concern to both GE Aviation and its customers. Airlines need to keep their planes in top shape for many reasons—safety and dependability being the main ones—but it also makes good business sense. A plane stuck on a tarmac or in a hangar with maintenance issues is not carrying passengers or freight to the next destination, which cuts into revenues. Hence the need to tackle each service request with speed and expertise. According to Francis, the TAT goal for GEnx quick turns is 60 days. At CVG, they’re currently operating in the 45- to 50-day range.
How are they able to achieve that kind of TAT? It starts with the people. All 51 of the team members in Cincinnati are licensed airframe and powerplant (A&P) mechanics who fall into three designated levels based on proficiency: Technicians who have passed a six-month probationary period to measure their knowledge and skills are Level 1; inspectors are level 2; techs or inspectors with at least 10 years of experience are Level 3. An advanced deployment technician and Chief Inspector round out the skillsets. Most have worked somewhere in the industry before joining OWS, often in airline or airframe maintenance, in the military, or within GE itself, though some have come straight from two-year technical programs or four-year colleges.
“I would say we’ve got some of the most talented aviation mechanics working out of this On Wing Support shop,” Francis says. “I have a ton of respect for my guys. They get the job done.”
Francis, whose grandfather was a welder at GE Aviation’s Evendale plant for 30 years, studied industrial management at the University of Cincinnati and did two rotations in Evendale manufacturing operations as a co-op—where he ended up working with his grandfather’s former supervisor. After he graduated, he joined the Operations Management Leadership Program and took assignments as a program leader with GEnx materials and CFM quality in Durham, North Carolina. He served as a Lean leader for OWS in Dallas before assuming his new role in Cincinnati last November.
Each OWS shop provides a variety of service needs. The Cincinnati shop, for instance, does not do overhauls; they stick to “inspect and install” work. With little inventory on-hand and limited ability to repair specific pieces on the premises, roughly 80 percent of parts are sent out to vendors for repair; the rest are replaced new.
Engine fatigue is measured in terms of time (hours of use) as well as cycles (takeoffs). Overhaul facilities “zero-time” an engine—that is, disassemble it completely to fully assess its status and repair any and all damage. “We operate in a continue-time capacity,” says Francis. “We are surgical, targeting only what is needed to be fixed and what we expose and inspect as unserviceable on the way there.”
Whether in the shop or in the field, they follow the “just-in-time” ethos. “Or sometimes just as fast as we can get tools, parts, and people dispatched,” he jokes. Last year the Cincinnati team worked on more than 250 engines across multiple platforms and performed 25 quick turns. “We have a specific mission on these quick turns,” Francis says. “Remove and replace the combustor, or something similar, so that the engine can continue to accumulate hours and cycles until it is required to complete a full shop visit,” where it will be zero-timed. Recently the team won Air Canada’s “Number 1 MRO Shop” award.
“Some people like to spend more time working in the shop, some like to get out on the road. We try to be flexible,” says Francis. “We’ve got some real road dogs on the staff for sure.” Either way, he adds, “our customers love us—they really appreciate these guys.”
The SWISS International Airlines event is a prime example of the team’s road dog virtuosity in action. In February 2017, a SWISS jet was forced to land at a remote airport on Baffin Island when one of two GE90-115B engines on the Boeing 777-300ER shut down mid-flight. Once the Cincinnati OWS team deduced that the engine would need to be replaced, they quickly put a plan into gear. With the temperature hovering between minus-23 and minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit, they set up an inflatable tent around the left wing of the beleaguered jet, filled it with heaters and lights to bring the temperature up to 50 degrees, and set to work. (Read the Popular Mechanics piece about the herculean replacement operation.)
One catch: The 8-member team had deployed so quickly, they’d only brought two heavy duty polar parkas with them. They would have to take turns working in teams of two.
“Two guys would work on the engine for five minutes, turn 10 bolts, then run back into a running car to get warm,” says Francis. “They’d take off the jackets and give them to two other guys who would run out and turn 10 more bolts. That’s how they did it.”
It took a week but the team got the left engine switched out. SWISS International Airlines was very pleased. “Later, they sent us SWISS beach towels as a thank-you gift,” Francis says, “which was kind of funny.”
Who You Gonna Call?
When the techs aren’t on the road, they work in a cavernous 40,000 square-foot warehouse with six engine bays and a bridge crane. Engines are backed into one end of the warehouse on an 18-wheeler or flatbed, plucked off the truck by the crane, delivered via a central aisle to an open bay, and set down on tracks laid on the shop floor.
Today, there are six engines in the shop—four GEnx, one CF6, and a massive GE90—all in various states of disassembly. Some are sitting horizontally on pedestals, while others are standing up. It can be easier to repair a 15,400-pound engine like a GEnx in a vertical position. Sometimes they have to remove the top half to get better access to the bottom half. “It’s like setting a doughnut on a napkin. It sits much better flat—that is, vertically—than on edge, or flight position,” Francis says.
A borescope comes in handy in either orientation. A remote visual inspection tool equipped with a five- to six-foot probe that can snake its way into an engine and send back images of the interior, a borescope gives technicians an intimate view of the wear and tear an engine endures over time. And when the engineers pay a visit, as they occasionally do, the techs “aren’t afraid to raise a hand and say, ‘I think this will work better,’” Francis says. “And the engineers listen to them.”
The team will soon have a lot more room to put their borescopes to use. In September, OWS-Cincinnati is expanding into a 69,000-square foot space currently being built in Florence, Kentucky, just south of CVG. The new facility will have nine large engine bays—or 18 small engine bays, depending on the size of the engine being serviced—which is certainly a vote of confidence for On Wing Support as far as business is concerned. Indeed, Francis expects to add new team members once the transition is complete.
So, should we expect to see more pins on the map?
“Oh yeah,” he says. “We’re here to serve all of our customers anywhere in the world.”