By Heather Wilburn, Fleet Readiness Center East
CHERRY POINT — Artisans at Fleet Readiness Center East can now move V-22 fuel bladders more safely and efficiently thanks to a new sling developed in partnership with private industry.
FRC East received the first V-22 sponson fuel bladder sling assembly — also known as a “dog bone” — in late summer. The new sling, first used in FRC East’s clean and blast shop, allows aircraft maintenance professionals to securely lift the flexible fuel bladders designed to fit in a V-22 Osprey’s sponsons, which are projections from the side of the aircraft that hold the fuel cells and landing gear.
Before the development of this equipment, no specialized tools existed to complete the job. Michael Rose, an artisan in the clean and blast shop, said the lack of a dedicated sling led him to believe there was room for improvement in the process used to lift and move the fuel bladders.
“From the top down, there’s been a big push to do work with the proper instruction, the proper tooling and proper training, but nobody had ever developed a sling specifically for the V-22 sponson fuel bladder,” he said.
Mr. Rose said his shop and others were using an existing metal sling to lift the bladders when needed. However, since the sling wasn’t explicitly designed to work with the V-22 sponson fuel bladder, the fit was imperfect. The metal sling also had the potential to damage the metal oval-shaped access door used to lift and move the fuel bladder.
The V-22 aircraft’s interactive electronic technical manual, used for maintenance, repair and overhaul procedures, showed no notes on tooling in the instruction for removing and installing the bladder. As the shop’s rigger in charge, Mr. Rose is the lead crane operator in the clean and blast area and said he felt a personal responsibility to find a way to improve the process.
“As we’re evolving into a more safety-conscious facility and taking cues from private industry on processes, we’re not just a ‘get it done’ place – we’re a ‘get it done right’ place, even if it takes a little longer,” he said.
Mr. Rose began researching the project in his spare time. Every so often, he’d run an internet search to see if any manufacturers were producing V-22 sponson fuel bladder slings. For almost a year, he said, his searches turned up empty. And then one day, he got a hit: A company called Dog Bone Aviation Support Equipment had a V-22 sponson bladder sling advertised on their website.
He discussed the product with his supervisor, who submitted a work ticket that routed to support equipment engineering. Mechanical engineer Austin Kress received the assignment, and began reviewing the sling specifications and requirements with his senior engineer.
Mr. Kress visited the clean and blast shop to evaluate the request, and he and Mr. Rose set off to work out a solution.
After determining the sling was acceptable and working with the manufacturer to add some additional hardware features to the product, the support equipment engineering branch ordered one of the slings to test as a prototype.
This sling, an aluminum fixture shaped somewhat like a dog bone, enabled the lifting of the fuel bladder by using tabs to engage teeth on the underside of the bladder’s oval-shaped access door, thereby locking into place.
“The fleet sends us a lot of sponson fuel bladders from all over the world – wherever the bladder is when it needs repair,” Mr. Rose said. “And nobody had the right tool for this. The Marines are literally lifting these things with ropes and two-by-fours, with ratchet straps. A lot of times, they’ll tip the crate on its side, and roll the bladder into it, then tip the crate back up. The Marines are just going to do what they need to do to get it done.”
Having the fuel bladders arrive in awkward or difficult-to-access positions led Mr. Kress to see a potential improvement on the original dog bone design: the addition of clamps to the sides, to keep the sling in place even when it’s not under tension from the crane. This modification also allows for one-person operation of the sling.
The original design also benefitted from a change in material. In the clean and blast shop environment, the crew uses acidic soaps, steam and coarse brushes to clean the fuel bladders and remove any fuel residue. This harsh environment led to the fairly rapid degradation of the polyurea coating and, without the coating in place, the team had concerns that direct contact with the metal sling had the potential to damage the metal ring around the fuel bladder’s access door.
Mr. Kress took the data back to the manufacturer and soon, the second iteration of the sling arrived at FRC East. Constructed of acetal, a composite material, and with locking clamps on top of the tabs, it fit the bill.
“This is one-of-a-kind and fits our needs, and I’m guessing we’re going to see this elsewhere because it works great,” Mr. Kress said. “We’ve taken this prototype and molded it to our needs, and it’s been a pretty cool process.”
From first contact with the manufacturer to getting the second, final version of the product, Mr. Kress estimates the project took about 10 months to one year. In terms of product development within the depot environment, that’s almost lightning speed; it took only two major increments to get the final product, he said.
“To me, that’s the highlight of the story: that our engineering team and private industry were able to work together pretty rapidly to develop a solution,” Mr. Rose added. “Whatever changes engineering brought to the manufacturer, they just fell in line and made it happen.
“I’ve never seen fleet readiness professionals work so closely with private industry to get something pushed through,” he continued. “We’ve taken this prototype and molded to our needs; I thought it was pretty unique and pretty inventive.”