The U.S. Air Force Sustainment Center has more data scientists under its purview than the Air Force Research Laboratory, the center’s commander told MRO Americas, underscoring how rapidly and totally big data is changing aerospace and defense, including maintenance.
“MRO tomorrow will involve bending 1s and 0s more than it will involve bending metal,” Lt. Gen. Lee K. Levy II says. He notes how upcoming Boeing KC-46A aerial refueling tankers will have more software lines of code involved than Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
Still, most of the aircraft his center maintains are so old that the manuals, communications and other relevant streams of information are not even digitized themselves, Levy notes. The average age of Air Force aircraft is 27 years. Using automobile license plates as an analogy, Levy said 21 of 39 Air Force fleets would qualify for an antique plate in Virginia. “That’s pretty geriatric,” he says.
Another complication for the center, headquartered at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, is that the military is fighting for the same workforce, or talent, as commercial aerospace MRO, and all of aerospace and defense is fighting other industries for the relatively limited number of skilled workers, especially those oriented to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
“We’re all fighting for the same talent. It’s a zero-sum gain,” Levy said during a keynote address to the Aviation Week conference. “We’re all hiring from each other.”
The three-star general calls on the commercial and military MRO industries to work together to recruit more STEM-friendly workers, especially with the potential for a looming wave of baby boomer retirements. Noting how long it takes to produce STEM MRO graduates—22 years, if you include the fact that people must be inspired to pursue such a career in their elementary or middle school years—the general points out that avoiding projected workforce shortages in the 2020s starts now.