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A Service Life Extension (SLEP) Approach to Operating Aging Aircraft Beyond Their Original Design Lives Open Access

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With today's uncertain funding climate (including sequestration and continuing budget resolutions), decision makers face severe budgetary challenges to maintain dominance through all aspects of the Department of Defense (DoD). To meet war-fighting capabilities, the DoD continues to extend aircraft programs beyond their design service lives by up to ten years, and occasionally much more. The budget requires a new approach to traditional extension strategies (i.e., reuse, reset, and reclamation) for structural hardware. While extending service life without careful controls can present a safety concern, future operations planning does not consider how much risk is present when operating within sound structural principles. Traditional structural hardware extension methods drive increased costs. Decision makers often overlook the inherent damage tolerance and fatigue capability of structural components and rely on simple time- and flight-based cycle accumulation when determining aircraft retirement lives.This study demonstrates that decision makers should consider risk in addition to the current extension strategies. Through an evaluation of eight military aircraft programs and the application and simulation of F-18 turbine engine usage data, this dissertation shows that insight into actual aircraft mission data, consideration of fatigue capability, and service extension length are key factors to consider. Aircraft structural components, as well as many critical safety components and system designs, have a predefined level of conservatism and inherent damage tolerance. The methods applied in this study would apply to extensions of other critical structures such as bridges. Understanding how much damage tolerance is built into the design compared to the original design usage requirements presents the opportunity to manage systems based on risk. The study presents the sensitivity of these factors and recommends avenues for further research.

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