WARRENTON — On the main hangar floor at Air Station Astoria last week, two Sikorsky MH-60T Jayhawk helicopters sat in varying stages of disassembly.
Coast Guard avionics and mechanical technicians at the air station disassembled, checked and put the helicopters back together. They repaired one after an avionics malfunction and conducted scheduled maintenance on another.
The air station’s three MH-60Ts are part of a fleet delivered to the Coast Guard in the early to mid-1990s, upgraded to a new model in the 2000s and originally meant to fly 10,000 hours. Each of the aircraft in Astoria have logged more than 13,000 hours of flight.
And with a directive to keep flying them through at least 2035, maintenance never stops.
A continual cycle
An estimated 24.4 hours of maintenance goes into each aircraft for every hour in flight. The maintenance starts with inspections before, during and after daily operations. Another list of required checks must be performed after 200 hours in the air.
Zach Painter, an avionics electrical technician, is one of about 50 maintenance personnel at the air station, split between avionics and aviation maintenance. The Coast Guard syncs periods of maintenance based on calendar days and flight hours to create a schedule of upkeep. Many of the components inside a helicopter have their own lifespan. No. 6002, one of three Jayhawks at the air station, has more than 14,000 flight hours. Since last week, the helicopter has been grounded during a scheduled maintenance period after reaching its latest increment of 200 flight hours.
Each flight-hour maintenance period builds in intensity to an 800-hour disassembly, said Chief Warrant Officer John Mitchell, the maintenance officer at the air station.
“The whole head gets disassembled,” he said of the 800-hour period. “We inspect everything on it. The blades come off. And then (we) put it all back together and we basically reset, so we start another 200-hour cycle again.”
A main issue is corrosion, with Coast Guard helicopters operating in harsh environments and close contact to saltwater. Technicians actively monitor for corrosion, replacing worn parts of the frame, spreading sealants to prevent water in between parts and putting dehumidifiers in the aircraft overnight.
‘A freshly built helicopter’
The yellow helicopter Air Station Astoria received last year on a four-year tour in honor of 100 years of Coast Guard aviation was recently sent to San Diego to cover for aircraft responding to Hurricane Harvey. Upon return, the helicopter will go through a 600-hour maintenance period and an engine change, Mitchell said.
The engine will be sent to the Aviation Logistics Center in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where aircraft go for the most intensive programmed depot maintenance. Base Elizabeth City is also the Coast Guard’s training ground for aviation maintenance workers.
Lt. Patrick Wright, a pilot and the assistant engineering officer at the air station, said the Coast Guard’s helicopters go out to stations from the logistics centers on four-year tours before going back for deep maintenance.
“They go back to North Carolina and get completely revamped,” he said. “All the paint comes off. It’s basically down to a bare hull and wiring. They take all the parts off, put them back on. So it’s kind of like you’ve got a freshly built helicopter with an air frame that’s pretty old.”
The aircraft rack up about 2,400 flight hours during each of those four-year tours, said Cmdr. David Feeney, aviation engineering officer at the air station.
Keep them running
Sikorsky gave the fleet of MH-60Ts an “on-condition” rating, meaning they can fly as long as inspections and maintenance keep up on the air frames, Feeney said.
The MH-60Ts are but one of several variants of the Sikorsky H-60, a family of military helicopters flown by different branches of the military since the 1970s. The Coast Guard has received and converted several helicopters from the Navy, including one brought from Air Station Sitka in Alaska, to cover in Astoria, while it covered San Diego.
The MH-60T was an upgrade in the mid-2000s from the similar HH-60J. The Coast Guard finished its upgrades to the fleet of MH-60Ts last year and moved the program into sustainment mode.
With only about 45 MH-60s nationwide, the Coast Guard is too small of a service to make its own order with Sikorsky. In regards to a potential new helicopter, the Coast Guard is waiting to see what happens with the Army’s Future Vertical Lift, an effort to develop a future helicopter to replace H-60s by the mid-2030s, Feeney said.
“That’s why we’ve been pushed back to 2035,” Feeney said. “The other services … they’re starting to look, but they’re not actively needing to replace their fleets until 2035, because they’re getting new H-60s.”