News | Dec. 21, 2022

The Phoenix Rises: Resurrection of Aircraft 166879

By Lt. Cmdr. Mark J. Van Orden Jr.

In the waning sunlight of April 2, Victory 205 took off on a Functional Check Flight (FCF) Profile A—the last step in the arduous maintenance journey before being deemed airworthy. The growl of the afterburners and retraction of the landing gear was met with cheers, high-fives and jubilation from the 15 dedicated maintainers on the flight line. To many, this may have seemed like a normal F/A-18 takeoff from Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana; however, this was the first flight of aircraft 166879 (Side 205) since May 4, 2012. 

Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 103 had accomplished something no other fleet squadron had in recent memory—resurrecting an aircraft to Mission Capable (MC) status after nearly 10 years of not flying. All the Sailors in the command accomplished this herculean task through an incredible sense of pride, ownership and dedication.

The history of aircraft 166879 is somewhat murky. Its last flight was May 4, 2012, at NAS Lemoore, California, with VFA-154. The aircraft was rumored to have experienced a brake fire, which caused a significant amount of damage.

After that incident, the aircraft was thought to be stricken from the inventory record and transferred to VFA-122. While at VFA-122, it was used as a parts bird and “Hangar Queen,” and robbed of parts to such an extent it was barely recognizable as an aircraft. Unfortunately, some of the cannibalization was either not properly documented, or lost over time. Sometime in 2017, the aircraft was transferred to VFA-106 where the logset—the entire maintenance record—was maintained, but the aircraft was essentially under the ownership of Command Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic (CSFWL), and subsequently Naval Aviation Maintenance Center for Excellence (NAMCE) Oceana.

Aircraft 166879 remained out of reporting in CSFWL’s inventory from 2017 until it was transferred to VFA-103 in 2021. As the fleet began to work towards its MC Super Hornet target, 166879 was deemed a “non-workhorse” asset, meaning it would only be used to fix other aircraft. Once VFA-103 achieved its MC target, the “non-workhorse” title was dropped and the aircraft was parked at Oceana with zero maintenance attention. The aircraft might have stayed in this state except for an increasing need for airworthy Hornets.

The Naval Aviation Enterprise (NAE) faces a difficult F/A-18F availability problem. With Boeing no longer producing F/A-18F models, Service Life Management (SLM)/high flight-hour restrictions, and a high demand of two-seat models at each Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS), F squadrons in maintenance phase find themselves in a precarious jet availability situation.

Balancing all of the abovementioned difficulties, aircraft 166879 was identified as a potential flyer for two reasons. First, the aircraft had not flown in almost 10 years, and as a result, the airframe had less than 1,000 hours. Second, it had an AESA Radar already installed. VFA-103 was selected as the squadron to resurrect 166879 with the help of Fleet Readiness Center Mid Atlantic (FRCMA) due to its extended maintenance phase, allowing plenty of time to accomplish the impossible.

On Jan. 11, 2021, the aircraft arrived to VFA-103’s hangar on a flatbed truck. The wings were missing, the canopy was gone, some flight controls were completely missing, panels were stripped, fuel cells were not even installed, and one could look through the belly of the aircraft in the avionics bays. In fact, the lieutenant’s name painted on the side of the aircraft was about to become an executive officer.

After the initial sticker shock, VFA-103’s maintenance team began work. 205 was slated to go to Periodic Maintenance Interval (PMI), but before it could go there, depot level maintenance needed to be accomplished before the PMI team could begin. The initial months of maintenance involved simply getting this ghost of a plane to resemble a Super Hornet.

Dec. 14, 2021, marked a huge milestone for 205. Even without a canopy installed, an In Flight Refueling (IFR) Probe that refused to close and several panels still missing, maintenance personnel conducted the first ground turn of the aircraft. The aircraft was started via a huffer—an external air cart used to push air into the engine to assist with starting—and only the right engine was started. VFA-103 was one step closer to getting 205 back in the air.

On Dec. 29, 2021, VFA-103 welcomed 205 back into their hangar. This move proved critical to the final phases of reconstruction. Work could now be done in the home hangar, which removed any sort of transit time across the flight line and now allowed more chief or officer oversight. During the Christmas and New Year leave periods, VFA-103 identified March 15, 2022, to be the initial flight of aircraft 205. The Ides of March seemed poetic as in ancient Roman times, that day was the one when Romans would pay off their debts. As such, VFA-103 would pay off the immeasurable debt incurred by the entire NAE and get 205 airborne.

During the first months of 2022, constant but slow progress was made on the aircraft. The biggest issue during this phase was that all work seemed to be one step forward and two steps back. In addressing and fixing one critical component, unexpectedly, a different component would fail. Rework became the enemy to progress.

Being that the aircraft had been cannibalized for so long, some parts or components that even experienced chiefs had never seen removed from the airframe were missing. With a significant lack of prior documentation, it was challenging to figure out which parts were missing. This required extensive depot level work to overcome these challenges.

During February and the beginning of March, the majority of VFA-103 was aboard USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) for Tailored Ships Training Availability (TSTA)/Group Sail. A dedicated team of 38 maintainers stayed back to focus their work solely on the resurrection of 205. With the proposed March 15 fly date rapidly approaching upon return from TSTA, it became evident that the aircraft was still a long way from its first flight.

The Nosewheel Digital Display Indicator proved to be an interesting problem. It would show completely different maintenance status panel codes than would show in the cockpit on the Engine Fuel Display (EFD) and the Maintenance Card post flight. Replacing it did not work initially, but once the correct software version was installed, the issue was solved. However, this small issue highlighted a general trend with 205; what seemed like a simple fix was anything but that. Outwardly simple fixes turned into days-long wild goose chases that dramatically increased the maintenance hours dedicated to 205. Messaging these setbacks and complications to higher headquarters proved difficult. The daily progress report generated by the VFA-103 Maintenance Material Control Officer (MMCO) showed that the required work should only take a certain number of maintenance hours. The actual work required was often double the estimated time due to the complications described above.

After TSTA, VFA-103 dedicated a team of 15 maintainers, under the leadership of a highly competent chief, to devote all time and energy into getting 205 in the air. Some of the squadron’s most knowledgeable maintainers were removed from their work centers to focus on 205.

While a massive amount of work was being done to the aircraft, Aviation Maintenance Administrationmen (AZs) were doing more work behind the scenes. They are the true unsung heroes of the resurrection of 205. With a lack of documentation for nearly a decade, logbooks had to be rebuilt from scratch and electronically in Optimized Organizational Maintenance Activity (OOMA) as well. Additionally, while a lot of the cannibalization was undocumented, there were still over 1,000 cannibalization Maintenance Action Forms (MAFs) that the AZs had to clear. Without any of the workers who cannibalized the parts in the squadron, the AZs were forced to conduct extensive research in order to sign off these MAFs. The administrative burden to get aircraft 166879 airborne was in many ways more difficult than the wrenches being turned on the aircraft.

With rebuilt logsets, 205 was screened for all Technical Directives (TDs) that it had missed in the past decade. The 500C TD verification could not be done before the logsets were complete. Once the TD screening began, VFA-103 identified 176 TDs that needed to be complied with before the aircraft could be released safe for flight.

By March 24, 317 total MAFs remained of which 213 were down MAFs, preventing it from being safe for flight. Some of the most stubborn gripes in the workload included re-rigging the in-flight refueling probe multiple times and swinging the landing gear.
On March 31, VFA-103 left its home base for training at Air Wing Fallon, Nevada. Only the 205 build team remained in Oceana. At this time, 133 MAFs remained, 63 of which were down. With the landing gear issue fixed, the airframers needed to re-rig the IFR probe—it took almost an entire day to get the probe re-rigged so that it would close properly.

On the morning of April 2, a palpable excitement was in the air: 205 was hours away from its first flight. The jet still needed to go to the compass rose, but the “Ladder” caution would not go away. Once the airframers completely re-rigged yet another component, 205 finished compass calibration and was almost ready for flight. After the compass calibration, paperwork was completed in preparation for the functional check flight (FCF) brief. Finally, for the first time in almost 10 years, 205 was released Safe-for-Flight by AMC Shinn. AD3 Neyman signed as Plane Captain (PC) and currently has a framed copy of the A-Sheet at his house.

Racing against the remaining sunlight in the day, the FCF brief was complete and aircrew walked on 205 for the first time in a decade. During the ground turn portion of the FCF, only a few issues arose. The ECS scoop was not closing properly, but AM2 Douglas Mignone was able to troubleshoot it on the go. The maintenance card did not load properly but AZ2 Brianna Wancowicz ran back to the hangar to reformat it. All in all, the ground turn went exceptionally smooth for an aircraft which had not flown in 10 years.
At 6:12 p.m., aircraft 166879 accelerated down the runway and once again tasted flight. The airborne portion of the FCF went smoothly, and 205 landed with the Profile A complete. Upon shutdown, a jittery Heads Up Display (HUD) and some Nose Wheel Steering (NWS) Hi-Gain Bit Logic Inspection codes (BLINs) were the only issues noted by aircrew.

The fact that aircraft 166879 passed the Pro-A on its very first attempt with almost zero gripes is a testament to the professionalism and pride of the maintainers of VFA-103. Furthermore, it is a testament to all those who helped facilitate its resurrection. While the 15 build team members were individually honored for their work and dedication, the entire squadron deserves credit for successfully flying 205. The rest of the squadron still maintained 11 up aircraft and supported four detachments while 205 was being rebuilt.
“It took hard work from every person to get this bird in the air,” Mignone said. “Not only did this bird fly, but its second flight was cross-country from Virginia Beach to Fallon Nevada. I’m extremely proud of my contribution to this jet’s continued success, and it’s probably my biggest accomplishment in my naval career to date.”

 “The amount of work and time put in to making this happen and to watch first flight from take-off to land with no issues speaks to the hard work of the 205 crew and was the most amazing thing to see it take its first flight. This crew stepped up and made what was thought to be impossible a reality,” said LS3 Dan Dunagan.

On a larger scale, the entire flight line deserves praise for helping VFA-103 accomplish this herculean task. First and foremost, a huge thank you to VFA-32 for providing extra maintenance personnel and countless man hours, as well as shared maintenance expertise to troubleshoot gripes. Another thank you to the Maintenance Team at CSFWL for their guidance and unwavering support throughout the process.

With all the lessons learned, we must not forget one simple fact; this was accomplished via the consummate pride and professionalism of our most important asset: our Sailors. Their dedication and willingness to sacrifice above and beyond the call of duty is the only reason aircraft 166879 flew again. It was through their sacrifice that VFA-103 was able to add yet another legendary chapter to their already storied history.

Lt. Cmdr. Mark J. Van Orden Jr. is the Maintenance Officer with Strike Fighter Squadron 103.