The KC-135 Stratotanker is an in-air jet refueling system. It was built in the late 1950’s in order to refuel the B-52 bomber while in mid-air. It’s been in service every since and as the reporter says, the government has no plans to replace the plane. Basically, every 5 years KC-135’s are grounded and brought into a hanger at Boeing’s Texas facility which is a little bit over a mile long and wide for weeks of inspection. A fleet of personnel perform depot-level inspections, repairs, and maintenance, modifications, re-painting and supply chain services. What’s interesting about this system is that every single screw, bolt, nut, wire, etc…is visually inspected and tested before the plane is deemed airborne ready again. Part of this inspection is due to a number of explosions that occurred in the 1990’s because of a fuel line that was faulty. A number of KC-135’s exploded in mid-air.
This got me thinking about the role of performance engineering as it relates to the KC-135. Obviously there is a sense of marvel engineering from the original designers and manufacturers. They constructed a fleet of planes that has withstood the sands of time. The planes are 50+ years old and still running. They have had some updates here and there (like new engines), but the same plane for all intensive purposes is still running.
Care and feeding of the aircraft has got to be the #2 reason for it’s longevity. I think it goes further then that. When you listen to the reporter talk about the maintenance process, you hear about a rigorous process of inspecting and testing every single part. There is a sense of intimate knowledge of what each part is responsible for. No part or component is looked over.
So I ask the question…how feasible is it for us to have a similar process…without going to the extreme of inspecting every single component? I would rather spin it a little different. Rather then us go through deep inspection, we go through focused inspection. For example, in our last benchmark we focused on database performance. Couldn’t it have been possible to do deep inspection of just the database? If so what would we have been focused on?
I would suggest taking a similar approach as the inspection process for the KC-135. They engineers start with visual inspection of the physical components (emphasis on form and composition). They then move on to the logical purpose of each component with an emphasis on consistent reliable function. Each engineer has intimate knowledge of each component and sub-component of the KC-135. No changes occur to the aircraft unless an inspection activity calls out a risk, flaw or issue.
I’m pretty sure the same applies to us…it’s just a question of choosing the right inspection activities.