News | Dec. 19, 2023

FRCSW/FRCSE Complete Final F/A-18 Hornet Center Barrel Replacement

Whether due to its all-weather versatility and reliability, or its run with the renowned flight demonstration team, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, the F/A-18 Hornet has been a combat-proven platform for the Navy and Marine Corps for many years.

It is a historic aircraft with an extensive past—one that would certainly not be as long or successful without a service life extension process called Center Barrel Replacement (CBR)—a complex and lengthy repair developed in 1991 by Fleet Readiness Center Southwest (FRCSW) and conducted exclusively by artisans at FRCSW and Fleet Readiness Center Southeast (FRCSE).

In fact, FRCSE and FRCSW both recently completed their last legacy F/A-18 CBR.

“Congratulations to the entire team of personnel that not only completed this final Center Barrel Replacement, but have also been the lifeblood of the CBR program here at FRC Southeast,” said FRCSE’s Commanding Officer, Capt. Al Palmer. “We conduct many difficult repairs, but CBRs demand a level of artisan skill that reminds us of how talented our workforce is here at FRC Southeast.”

The Legacy Hornet originally soared into the Navy and Marine Corps arsenal in the 1980s with an expected service life of 6,000 flight hours. Like most things, an aircraft is only as strong as its parts, and after years of hard landings aboard aircraft carriers at sea, it was discovered that the aircraft’s fuselage section or center barrel, was particularly susceptible to damage.

“Thousands of rough landings at sea and G-forces create an incredible amount of stress on an aircraft in general, but the center barrel on a Hornet has several key attach points that are particularly vulnerable to stress,” said Rebecca Ferguson, FRCSE’s F/A-18 Legacy Hornet production lead. “The landing gear and wings connect to the fuselage at the center barrel. Replacing this structural piece helps ensure the aircraft remains airworthy.”

To prolong the aircraft’s life, highly skilled and talented artisans conduct a CBR by situating the jet on a sturdy support frame, or center barrel fixture, splitting it in half and laboring thousands of hours drilling thousands of fasteners to free the fatigued component.

Once removed, artisans carefully drop in a new center barrel, which Northrop Grumman manufactures in the form of a kit, and then FRCSE’s skilled artisans go through the entire drilling and riveting process again, ensuring every hole is methodically bored one size up to accommodate a larger fastener—approximately 20,000 fasteners first drilled out, then drilled in.

Depending on its condition and other planned depot maintenance evolutions, such as a High Flight Hour (HFH) inspection and Planned Maintenance Interval (PMI), a CBR can take up to three years to complete, costing the Navy approximately $3 million per aircraft. While it may sound expensive, this repair is a fraction of the cost of a new aircraft.
“The repair is extensive and usually accompanied by other depot HFH and PMI evolutions,” Ferguson said. “The nature of the repair requires artisans to spend years with these aircraft, which doesn’t just take technical know-how and meticulous attention to detail, but also a real sense of pride in the work performed. FRC Southeast and FRC Southwest CBR artisans and engineers are why these aged aircraft are still flying over 40 years later—long past their expected lifecycle. It’s truly an incredible feat.” 

As a few artisans gathered to watch the last CBR Legacy Hornet taxi down the flight line at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, an instrumental chapter of FRCSE and aviation history has concluded, opening the door for even greater innovation and challenges to come.