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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Point taken: Fleet Readiness Center East packs a powerful punch

In February, the Eastern Carolina Aviation Heritage Foundation held a fundraiser at the Havelock Tourist & Event Center, with proceeds to promote STEM education. The speaker was Mark Meno, executive director at Fleet Readiness Center East, the Navy’s aviation overhaul and repair depot. His talk was headlined: “Eastern NC’s Best Kept Secret!”

With some 4,000 workers, including 1,000 engineers, FRC East has been around for 80 years. You might think something so important to the state wouldn’t be much of a secret. 

“Not a lot of people even know about it,” says Keith Wheeler, executive director of East Carolina University’s Office of National Security & Industry Initiatives. He calls it “one of the largest, most awe-inspiring facilities that we have.”

The depot is a Navy-run facility on Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, about 15 miles down the Neuse River from downtown New Bern. It takes up about147 acres as a tenant of the air station, also home to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing. FRC East’s 119 buildings cover 2.1 million square feet. It is probably going to get bigger as more fifth-generation fighters, the F-35, arrive for overhauls and repairs.

FRC East bills its military customers about $1 billion a year, and has a payroll of about $330 million. The average salary is $72,000 a year, nearly 28% more than the median household income in Craven County.

Meno, the top civilian executive at FRC East, came to the depot after graduating from Virginia Tech in 1994. He sums up its significance this way: “It is the largest aeronautical services, logistics and engineering services provider in North Carolina. It is the largest industrial employer east of (Interstate) 95.”

SOME HISTORY

FRC East started out with 36 employees in 1943, part of the construction of Marine bases along the coast of North Carolina, from Havelock to Jacksonville.  By war’s end, nearly 3,800 workers were repairing planes at Cherry Point. In 1969, it was designated the Naval Air Rework Facility. It became the Naval Aviation Depot in 1987 and FRC East in 2006. Nearly all the employees are civilians; many are veterans.

FRC East does work on aircraft from all over the military, but about 75% of its workload is maintenance and overhaul of Marine aircraft. One variant of the F-35 is the Marines’ version, the F-35B, the short-takeoff/vertical landing aircraft that is replacing the Harrier. A construction project at FRC East is a lift fan test facility for the F-35B. 

Mark Meno

Military aircraft are intended to fly a long time. The F-35 may go past 2070. They last because out of every five-year cycle, they visit a place like FRC East for about six months, get taken apart down to the air frame, refurbished and upgraded. That’s the industrial part of the depot.

Then there’s the engineering part. Say there’s a mystery vibration in a helicopter.  

“You call an engineer . . . [who says], ‘Send us the data; we’re looking at it. Swap out this component. Test- fly it again. Yeah, the warning went away. Great, off you go.’ That kind of instant response, touch and support is what we also provide,” says Meno.

Keith Wheeler

Sometimes the engineers are trying to put monitoring systems on helicopters that were built 40 years ago. Or they have to get old aircraft and new ones to communicate and collaborate in the battle space. For the engineering and logistics folks at FRC East, “that’s the bread and butter of their business,” says Meno. “They create all of the instructions and documentations and modification packages and designs, so when it comes into an industrial facility and gets ripped down and built back up, it’s done repeatedly, effectively and in a way that can be maintained.”

SCHEDULES AND SURPRISES

When you start overhauling an aircraft on a tight deadline, you can get surprises. Corrosion may be worse than expected. You may need a part that isn’t in inventory. Scheduling is always a challenge. 

“The way we have to operate, we’ve got one plating shop and one cleaning shop and one paint shop.  And everybody’s stuff is coming in and out of those places. That requires a lot of logistics and coordinating,” Meno says.

It all seems to work out. Last year, FRC East overhauled each of the 60 aircraft that it was supposed to.  

“Engines, we did I think 82 out of 86, and the four that fell out were, they changed the schedule on us. We were supposed to do a little over 10,000 components. We did 11,000-ish, so we overshot our component numbers.”

An F-35B Lightning II , a short takeoff-vertical landing jet flown by the United States Marine Corps, awaits disassembly before modification at FRC East. Jets are refurbished every five years, ensuring lots of work at the site.

Meno is also proud of the depot’s improved safety record. In 2002, there were 800 instances of reported injuries a year. Last year there were 36. “We had a few commanders who came in 10-15 years ago that said, well, we can’t keep doing this to our people.” 

GOING TO GLOBAL TRANSPARK

Space has been at a premium at FRC East. Two years ago, the depot opened a satellite operation at the state’s Global TransPark in Kinston to overhaul Air Force UH-1 “Huey” helicopters. This enabled the depot to open up scarce hangar space in Havelock for its V–22 Osprey and H-53 heavy-lift helicopter programs.

A bigger partnership between GTP and FRC East could be afoot.  That would boost Kinston and the TransPark as the hub of an Eastern North Carolina aeronautics industrial corridor — the center in a cluster of military and civilian aviation facilities, supplied by technicians trained at community colleges and engineers from universities like N.C. State and East Carolina University. Building a reliable workforce for this cluster is one reason 29 school systems and 14 community colleges joined NC East Alliance’s STEM East Network in January in Greenville. 

The TransPark had its origins as a Kinston auxiliary airfield to train Marine pilots, before transitioning into a small public airport with a few commercial flights. In the early 1990s, state officials hoped that the airport, with its 11,500-foot runway, could become the hub of a manufacturing and logistics complex — the Global TransPark — where companies would fly in unfinished products, then fly the finished goods all over the world. That didn’t take off.  But steadily, it has attracted aeronautics and aviation tenants, with a major charter jet company, flyExclusive, and Spirit AeroSystems, a supplier to Airbus. Lenoir Community College received a $25 million appropriation for an aviation training center at GTP.

Against this backdrop, GTP and FRC East are discussing a project that could bring in Navy and Marine C-130s work now done at an Air Force facility in Utah.

“One of the options being discussed, still being discussed, is the Navy and Marine Corps taking back their C-130 work, and FRC East being responsible for that work,” says Meno. “Those aircraft are pretty large so they require construction of hangars.”

Norris Tolson is the head of the GTP board and CEO of the Carolinas Gateway Partnership, an economic development group in Edgecombe County.  The Huey project “went very well,” he notes. “We’ve got the runway and we’ve got plenty of space around this, and the security’s pretty good there. We’ve been having some pretty heavy-duty discussions with FRC.”

FRC East employs about 4,000, including 1,000 engineers.

THE FUTURE

There will also likely be some significant construction for FRC East at Cherry Point to accommodate the rising F-35 work.  

The center of activity will be across a runway from the depot’s buildings, on about 100 acres that used to be housing. The first of two F-35 hangars is being designed now. It is planned to have 20 bays. Groundbreaking may take place in another year or two, with occupancy in the 2027 timeframe.

“That will be the first large hangar-sized industrial, huge facility on that side of the runway,” says Meno.  That, plus nine existing bays, would give the depot 29 bays for F-35 work. He expects to see another building with 14 bays. “So, in the end, we’d have a little over 40 bays for F-35s versus the nine we have now.”

Asked what this could mean for employment, Meno estimated perhaps 500 more people added over five to seven years. That could include more staffers in Havelock, Kinston and Onslow County. That would be significant for Eastern North Carolina because these are good jobs.

THE BRAC JITTERS

Mary Beth Fennell

From the late ‘80s until the mid-2000s, the military went through something called BRAC, a term that sent shudders through base towns everywhere. It stands for Base Realignment and Closure. The last one was 2005. Given the work coming with the F-35 and the V-22 Osprey, FRC East may be as essential as it has ever been, but one BRAC legacy is organizations like Allies for Cherry Point’s Tomorrow. The ‘93 BRAC was a particularly jittery one. Some 1,600 depot employees went to Norfolk, Virginia  to a BRAC hearing.

James Norment, a New Bern attorney who has lobbied to support Cherry Point, says the BRAC 30 years ago “showed the community that if the military wanted to close it, they could close it. Now of course, that was a long time ago.  Memories fade.”

Awareness of the depot west of Interstate 95 tended to be highest during BRACs. Mary Beth Fennell, a retired FRC East engineer, recalls when the operations made the front page of my old paper, The News & Observer of Raleigh, in 2003.  In the opening paragraph, the story posed the question: What would state leaders give to lure an aerospace plant with 4,000 high-paying jobs? 

“And if this hypothetical plant were to plop down in Eastern North Carolina, where high-paying jobs are scarce,” the story continued, “the celebration in Raleigh might well last for days. Thing is, that industry — the Naval Air Depot at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point — is already there, and the state’s most vital economic development campaign in the next two years might be trying to protect it and other military facilities from a major round of base closings that will be announced in 2005.”

That was 20 years ago, and, as Norment says, memories fade. A lot of the folks living in Raleigh and Charlotte have arrived here since the BRAC days. A lot of folks drive through Havelock on the way to Crystal Coast beaches and have no idea that on the left side of U.S. 70, behind the gates, is Eastern North Carolina’s best-kept secret.

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