U.S. Military Works to Identify Corrosion Through Aircraft Coatings

Austin Ziltz, left, lead engineer with Grey Gecko, tests the hand-held tool on the depot’s F-35 maintenance trainer airframe. Photo by Heather Wilburn, FRCE.

A team at the Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE) of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point (Cherry Point, North Carolina, USA) is examining new possibilities for quickly and accurately detecting corrosion and preventing its spread. To that end, the F-35 Lightning II program recently hosted a demonstration of a tool that can help identify corrosion through many aircraft coatings: the Grey Gecko Real-Time Inspection Tool, or GRIT system.

“Corrosion is a recurring theme across all forms of aviation, resulting in huge cost and fleet availability impacts,” says Matt Crisp, site lead for FRCE’s F-35 Joint Program Office, who organized the event.1 “Current detection methods for most aircraft involve visual inspection using traditional tools. These inspections are time consuming, sometimes require additional efforts like removing paint, and can be highly subjective based on inspector techniques, experience and attention to detail.”

How the Tool Works

A tool that can help reliably identify corrosion through aircraft coatings could help facilitate faster, less objective corrosion inspections that reduce corrosion growth and associated costs, all while increasing aircraft availability.

“The idea is to produce clear, easily understandable pictures of damaged areas that can be immediately shared with leadership, maintainers, investigators and customers,” says Ron Stearns, business development director at research and development company Grey Gecko (Newport News, Virginia, USA). “It’s designed to be used plane-side by traditional maintenance personnel, and to complement phased non-destructive inspection intervals. One of the things that we’re very proud of is that it can act as a vector to enhance or better target other methods that are prescribed in the maintenance manuals.”

The tool uses a mid-wave infrared camera to visually penetrate the aircraft coatings and record images of the surface below. Grey Gecko estimates use of the GRIT for non-destructive inspection can reduce aircraft downtime caused by corrosion by up to 25% and reduce the inspection manpower requirement by more than 50% in some applications.

GRIT Demonstration

As part of the GRIT demonstration, a multidisciplinary group of engineers from aircraft lines across the depot and members of the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command Advanced Technology and Innovation (ATI) team at FRCE were able to discuss the tool with its designers at Grey Gecko. In the demonstration, attendees got hands-on experience by testing the tool on various aircraft panels and FRCE’s F-35 maintenance trainer airframe.

According to Crisp, the demonstration was scheduled to familiarize the group with the product’s manufacturer, evaluate the equipment and its capabilities and limitations, and explore the potential for the tool’s use in both depot and fleet environments.

“Part of this effort is to go back and sharpen our pencils on how we could integrate this new functionality into our existing corrosion and inspection programs to fully utilize its capability and get the most efficiency out of its use,” Crisp says. “Each team had the opportunity to ask questions, get hands on testing, and even test some of their own peculiar parts. Holistically, the equipment was very interesting and seemed to work well. The challenge now is to figure out who can get the most benefit out of this, and how to go about making this a reality.”

This equipment demonstration marked the first hosted by the F-35 program, says Crisp, adding that the F-35 depot team at Cherry Point plans to work more with the ATI team to explore new technologies that have potential benefit for F-35; other fleet support teams; and maintenance, repair, and overhaul operations.

Rave Reviews by Team Leads

Jamaine Clemmons, lead of the ATI team at FRCE, believes the demonstration was successful. “Many on-site demos give you an opportunity to get hands-on experience with a technology, compare it to your use case, as well as look for additional opportunities to test it out on,” Clemmons says. “The vendor was able to demo their capability for the stakeholders to detect corrosion under paint on a few panels that were pre-corroded and painted over to various thicknesses.”

Jamaine Clemmons, right, uses the real-time inspection tool to inspect an aircraft panel for corrosion beneath the surface coating. Austin Ziltz, lead engineer with Grey Gecko, holds the device’s connected tablet and monitors the readout. Photo courtesy of FRCE.“Understanding that this was the main capability of the technology, we wanted to take the opportunity to test it out on various primers, topcoats, and thicknesses for multiple platforms to better evaluate the system and look for opportunities for refinement and expansion with the utilization of the tool,” Clemmons adds. “That’s the beauty of developing, maturing, advancing, and refining a technology. My team is currently in the process of gathering feedback from all the stakeholders in attendance and providing that feedback to the company for potential further development and expansion into other coatings.”

Robert “Yogi” Kestler, lead engineer with the ATI team, said he has been working with Grey Gecko to provide technical support and guidance for development of the GRIT system.

“The demonstration was a success in my opinion, because it allowed us to see how far Grey Gecko had advanced their GRIT system,” Kestler says. “There are applications where a device like the GRIT may be useful to the fleet. Corrosion is the top problem we see for sustaining our weapon systems; we spend billions of dollars on corrosion issues each year, and we are looking for tools and technologies to reduce its impact.”

While organized by the F-35 program, the GRIT demonstration fell in line with the ATI team’s mission of developing solutions for the multiple aircraft supported by FRCE.

“We want to focus on technology across the entire technology readiness level spectrum; therefore, we can identify quick wins to implement within a maintenance, repair, and overhaul environment, while also being forward-leaning into the next generation of technology for fifth-generation and beyond aircraft,” Clemmons says.

Hosting product and technology demonstrations presents a win-win situation for both the depot and industry partners, Kestler says.

“Demonstrations benefit both the fleet readiness center and the companies,” he explains. “They allow us to evaluate the potential of the technology and we have an opportunity to provide input to companies for potential improvements and design changes for prospective applications.”

F-35 Trainer Airframe

Crisp notes that having the F-35 maintenance trainer airframe, which arrived at FRCE in March 2021, helped make the GRIT demo a possibility.

“We as the F-35 depot team at Cherry Point hope to keep hosting and engaging in similar events to evaluate new technology and how we can integrate it into the fleet and depot environments to reduce time to repair, program sustainment costs, and increase the availability of aircraft in the fleet,” he says. “This is our first demo event using the newly acquired F-35 maintenance/test trainer airframe, but we have several others already scheduled and others in discussion for planning in the future. We are excited to have this asset at our disposal and what we can do with it to pour value back into the sustainment of the F-35 program.”

FRCE is North Carolina’s largest maintenance, repair, overhaul, and technical services provider, with more than 4,000 civilian, military, and contract workers. Its an; Naval nual revenue exceeds $1 billion. The depot provides service to the fleet while functioning as an integral part of the greater U.S. NavyAir Systems Command; and Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers.

Source: U.S. Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, www.dvidshub.net.


1 “FRCE Explores New Technology in Fight Against Aircraft Corrosion,” Defense Visual Information Distribution Service News, July 2, 2021, https://www.dvidshub.net/news/400317/frce-explores-new-technology-fight-against-aircraft-corrosion (July 21, 2021).

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