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Dorr: Reliability: Can we do better?

Oct. 8, 2013 - 02:41PM   |  
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Would you be satisfied if your car, cellphone or computer worked properly just three-quarters of the time?

No? Then why does the Air Force permit a culture in which just over 75 percent is considered a good mission-capable rate?

MCRs are a measure of reliability in an aircraft fleet. If three planes out of every four take off and fly their scheduled missions, that’s a 75 percent MCR.

Air Force Times in its Oct. 7 issue published MCR rates for most Air Force aircraft and reported overall rates at 77.8 percent.

One big surprise was the T-6A Texan II primary trainer, a plane I’ve flown several times during orientation flights. The T-6A’s reliability score dropped to 63.3 percent this year, down from almost 81 percent in 2011.

Now, comparing aircraft types can be apples and oranges. You’d expect a low number for the big, intricate, geriatric C-5A Galaxy (67.2 percent) and a high figure for the almost-new and uncomplicated C-37A Gulfstream V executive jet (96.9 percent).

But the T-6A is a simple, straightforward design and it, too, is almost new. Could its low rate be because vendors, rather than airmen, maintain the aircraft? Traditionally, both airmen and contractors do a superb job of keeping aircraft flying.

The dismal showing of the B-2 Spirit bomber (46.7 percent) is no surprise. The high-maintenance B-2 has been oversold on the basis of stealth technology that makes it difficult to detect on radar. But experts disagree on whether stealth is needed in modern warfare.

Our other two bombers, the B-1B Lancer and B-52 Stratofortress, weigh in at 57.9 percent and 75.3 percent, respectively.

Some of the finest people in the world work in maintenance shops around the Air Force. They have good leaders and good training. Everybody is being asked to do more with less and, yes, we have spare-parts issues but nothing on the magnitude of the spare-parts crisis of the late 1990s.

Airline companies, which have more money and newer equipment, achieve about a 95 percent dispatch rate with the most reliable planes, like the Airbus 330 and Boeing 737. They’re less successful with other types but still have good numbers.

In the corporate world, Gulfstreams — civilian equivalents of the C-37A — have close to 100 percent dispatch rates.

Yes, it’s apples and oranges again but can’t we learn something from the airline and business jet industries, which haul millions of passengers every year?

In arguing that MCRs must be improved, my purpose is not to criticize maintainers. It’s our national leaders I’m wondering about — in industry, in government, in the Pentagon. Government and industry should be more proactive in keeping planes flying. Someone in Washington needs to search for funding, methods and techniques that will bring up the Air Force’s numbers.

And what if Air Force culture would allow us to revert to a leadership style of the past, when commanders ruled with an iron hand? Gen. Curtis LeMay, who led Strategic Air Command from 1948 to 1957, would be appalled by the readiness rates of today’s bombers. He wouldn’t have allowed it.

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