MISSION COMPLETE: Final F-16 Phase Inspection for the VTANG

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Aircraft tail number 328 recently emerged from its 300-hour phase inspection, marking another final event for the F-16 at the 158th Fighter Wing. Aircraft 328 was the last F-16 to undergo a phase inspection as the unit transitions to the F-35 Lightning II in fall of 2019.

To the uninitiated, a phase inspection may just seem like a chance to take a jet out of the lineup, hand it over to phase maintainers and conduct a set of periodic maintenance actions, but in fact, it’s a highly synchronized program involving nearly every maintenance shop and many offices. The sequence of events to complete a phase inspection is carefully managed to minimize the amount of time the jet is out of the lineup and to coordinate the work on the inspections and fixes between many shops.

Unlike periodic inspections on a vehicle, which are based on miles driven, a phase inspection (technically referred to as an isochronal phase inspection) is due on an F-16 every 300 flight hours.

Phase technician TSgt Charles Thurston added, “if you’re trying to be a mechanic, phase dock is the place to be. You’re going to find the weird stuff on the jet back here.”

The inspection typically lasts 18 work days, includes 117 separate work cards and 340 individual inspection steps. The general flow of the inspection involves nearly every shop, from Weapons, who deconfigure the aircraft, to crew chiefs, who prepare and wash the deconfigured jet, to the phase crew chiefs who depanel the jet and begin their works cards, to all the individual shops who have their own work cards or discrepancies to fix. These often include Avionics, Electrical and Environmental Systems (E&E), Engines, Fuels, Egress, Hydraulics, Non-Destructive Inspection (NDI), Machine and Structural.

For the maintainers who work on a jet in phase, the experience is challenging and rewarding.

“It’s like our own mini-production,” said MSgt Andrew Maxfield, the inspection element dock chief, “we
get to decide the path of how the phase inspection will go, in coordination with Production.”

After the jet is washed and de-paneled, maintainers start completing work cards. During this phase maintainers note discovered discrepancies found during those meticulous 340 inspection steps, order the required parts from supply, and create a list of jobs to complete in the “fix phase,” after the inspections are complete.

MSgt Casey Drew, phase floor lead, expanded on this by saying, “back here you’re inspecting so much more than what you would see through flight or preflight; it makes you better when you’re on the flight line.”

While awaiting parts, the jet goes to the fuel barn for further inspection and fixes within the fuel cells of the aircraft that require the Fuel shop, Nondestructive Inspection shop, and E&E. When it comes back from the fuel barn the fix phase begins, with several shops working on the jet simultaneously. All this occurs while balancing the needs of producing the daily flying schedule, which may pull manpower away from the phase hanger. Finally, when the fixes are complete, the jet is ready for the Quality Assurance shop’s inspection, then operational checks, engine runs, and a final review of the aircraft forms and computer data base documents before signing off on completion.

Phase allows maintainers to work on jobs and see components they would not normally see, which benefits both new and experienced maintainers.

“Something like part number and serial number tracking – verifying what’s installed on a given aircraft – can be very useful because you see what that component actually looks like and where it’s located,” said E&E apprentice A1C Terray Goodman.

Additionally, because many of the fixes require coordination between different shops, several maintainers said they gained a better perspective on what other Airmen contribute.

“Phase was a humbling experience,” said phase technician SSgt Adam Bentley. “You work with Plans and Scheduling, interact multiple times a day with supply and you’re learning about other peoples’ jobs on the jet.”

While these maintainers are focused on the job at hand, it’s impossible not to notice the mission transition occurring across the Wing. They have been conducting their phase inspections in temporary facilities, getting creative with solving problems; including coordinating with other units for equipment and jobs that were formerly available in-house.

All these experiences confirm that F-16 phase inspections are not only a vital event in maintaining a healthy aircraft fleet, but also important for maintainers’ development. When 328 rolled healthily back on the lineup, it was the 139th phase inspection maintenance completed since adopting the Block 30 F-16 in 2008.

Although the exact number is lost to the mists of time, we estimate there have been over 360 phase inspections since the Vermont Air National Guard received the F-16 in 1986. That is certainly a remarkable milestone both for the aircraft and the people who keep the fleet flying safely.