From the Desert to the Skies: Accelerated Aircraft Regeneration Leads to Achieving A Center of Excellence Status

A rapidly changing world requires new ways of thinking about aircraft support in the aerospace and defense industry. The key to aircraft sustainment is the integration of updated avionics and aircraft systems to meet current mission demands. To support the entire lifecycle of an aircraft, a defense contractor implements high-quality Maintenance, Modification, Repair, and Overhaul (MMRO) solutions combined with lean business practices to ensure a seamless process from cradle to grave. The question becomes, “how does this apply to major modernization efforts?” How does an airframe that has been moth-balled for over 10 years not only transform into an airworthy air tanker, but also obtain an FAA Type Certificate (TC) in less than four months?

Strategic Partnerships Advancing Business Objectives

With over 100 years of combined experience, global aerospace leaders Vertex Aerospace and Coulson Aviation have worked together to convert a Norwegian Air Force C-130H aircraft into a firefighting C-130. Aftermarket aerospace company Vertex Aerospace offers high-quality aircraft maintenance, technical and supply-chain support, product manufacturing, assembly services, and engineering solutions for government and commercial customers. Vertex’s Aircraft Integration & Sustainment (AIS) division in Crestview, Florida operates a FAA Part 145 repair station that maintains a highly proficient workforce specializing in aircraft platform modification, integration, and maintenance services. Coulson Aviation is the only operator of large fixed and rotary-wing firefighting aircraft in the world with bases and operation approvals in Australia, Canada, Chile, and the United States. As the global leader in aerial fire suppression, Coulson understands the importance of like-minded companies that share the same values of turning out the best quality of aircraft while being cost-conscious.

Mark Blair, Vertex’s Director of Programs said, “When Coulson contacted us for support in regenerating the Hercules aircraft out of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, we deployed a team two weeks later.” Blair went on to say, “The initial requirement was clear but extremely challenging given the national pandemic and an austere environment with no hangars or pavement.” Vertex joined the onsite Coulson team to quickly begin work, conducting full operational testing of all aircraft systems. The goal was to obtain a ferry permit to transport the aircraft for depot-level work. Within eight days, tires and wheels were replaced and flight controls, engines, and aircraft systems were inspected, repaired, and serviced. Over the next two weeks, the Vertex team completed all de-preservation and maintenance actions providing a safe for-flight aircraft in 21 days. The C-130H was ferried to Vertex’s AIS division to complete heavy depot-level maintenance, avionics upgrades, and major modification.

Storage to Rebirth: An Accelerated Transformation

“Since our AIS site houses multiple high bay hangars and is co-located at the Bob Sikes’ Airport boasting a fully instrumented 8,000 ft runway, the delivery of the aircraft was a seamless process,” said Blair. Depot maintenance began immediately which consisted of removing flight controls, conducting Non-Destructive Inspections (NDIs), and performing repairs. Vertex’s supply chain competency and FAA Part 145 repair station allows for rapid and cost-effective logistics management for the entire lifecycle of an aircraft. The avionics that were previously installed in the airplane were military-specific and not well suited for Coulson’s low-level tactical environment. Therefore, a comprehensive update of the avionics suite was completed. This package, engineered and certified by Coulson, included a dual GPS system, upgraded color weather radar, horizontal situation indicator, terrain collision avoidance system, radar altimeter, air data computer, distance measuring equipment, satellite communication system, and upgraded UHF/VHF radios. Additionally, the Vertex team assisted Coulson with the installation of Coulson’s 4,000-gallon internal gravity-powered retardant tank also known as Retardant Aerial Delivery System (RADS-XXL). The modification of the fuselage allowing the aircraft to store and release fire retardant was also completed at Vertex’s Crestview site. After a short four months, the Vertex AIS and Coulson Aviation teams had repurposed the military aircraft for commercial use. Typically, this entire process from C-Check to FAA certification would take a minimum of two and a half years.

Blair commended the team and conversion effort by saying, “In partnership with Coulson’s onsite technical leads, our expert avionics, mechanical, and structural technicians did an outstanding job completely transforming the Hercules airframe. Our Crestview FAA Part 145 Repair Station’s turnkey capabilities ensured we provided Coulson with project performance that exceeded expectations.”

Coulson Avionics Team Lead Mark B. replied, “Our strategic and collaborative relationship with Vertex merged highly complex modernization activities into one unified operation. This integration allowed us to take the dependable C-130H airframe and bring it back to life as a ‘Next Gen’ Firefighter. As a result, we have a mission-ready aircraft able to carry 4,000 gallons of retardant and store high levels of fuel, giving us more flight time, and ultimately delivering more retardant to the fire in a shorter amount of time.”

Excellence in Aircraft Integration & Sustainment

On the heels of this modernization effort, Vertex Aerospace was recognized by Corporate Vision with the Excellence in Aircraft Integration & Sustainment award. “I could not be prouder of the Vertex team and our partnership with Coulson Aviation,” said John “Ed” Boyington, Vertex President and CEO. “This award is a testament to the dedication, commitment, and high-quality work performed by this team, ultimately enabling Coulson Aviation to perform their critical firefighting mission.” More information about Vertex Aerospace’s AIS division can be found at vtxaero.com/ais

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Mark Blair Bio

Mark Blair, Vertex Aerospace Director of Programs, has been with the company for 34 years. He is responsible for Aircraft Modification and Maintenance Programs at Vertex’s AIS division in Crestview. He also serves as the Accountable Manager for Vertex’s AIS FAA Part 145 Repair Station and ensures customers receive turnkey, high-quality, MMRO solutions. Blair began his aviation career as a U.S. Air Force Crew Chief specialized in RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. After leaving the Air Force, he became an aircraft mechanic and later transitioned to an aircraft inspector. Blair has held various leadership positions at Vertex in Operations, Quality Assurance, and Program Management. His diversified portfolio of experience includes maintenance, inspections, and management of fixed and rotary-wing aircraft programs for military and commercial customers.