By Jillian Wright
For three decades, Northrop Grumman’s Aircraft Maintenance and Fabrication Center (AMFC) team kept a key U.S. Air Force fleet flying. The Lake Charles, Louisiana, site — which performs aircraft maintenance and modifications — historically served as the traditional home of the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) aircraft program. Being the sole contractor on any program for 30 years is a rarity.
“Contracts like that are almost like UFOs — everybody’s heard of them, but no one’s ever seen one,” said Michael, who has worked as site manager for seven years, and at Northrop Grumman for 17 years. “A lot of our heart and soul was in the program.”
In 2021, the customer announced plans to sunset Joint STARS. Although AMFC supports multiple aircraft platforms, the news was devastating for employees like John, who worked on the aircraft for 20 years.
“I was 18 the first time I worked on Joint STARS as a fuel systems contractor for another company. I did that for the first six years of my career before I joined Northrop Grumman as a sheet metal technician on the program,” said John, who is also a U.S. Army veteran. “I learned how to work on airplanes here, and then got to lead the same people who taught me as lead mechanic. Joint STARS has been my whole career, so I was sad to see it go.”
But as one chapter ended, a new one began in a rather fateful way.
The total 10 million maintenance hours the aircraft technicians performed on the Joint STARS airframe played a key role in the site securing a new major contract with the U.S. Navy for the E-6B Mercury. As it turned out, Joint STARS and the E-6B were made from the same airframe.
“We could not only predict the structural issues the Navy would face in the future, but also say we’ve already solved those issues through our work on Joint STARS,” said Michael. “This program was a bellwether for the E-6B fleet.”
“Having these aircraft readily available for the warfighter is of the utmost importance because its presence alone to adversaries is a deterrent for nuclear war.”
— John, Lead Mechanic
The E-6B is a critical player in defending global security, providing airborne command, control and communications to the U.S. nuclear deterrence forces. As part of the ‘Take Charge and Move Out’ (TACAMO) mission, in the event of a nuclear war, the E-6B would notify Naval assets — ballistic missile submarines — that it’s time for launch. With a small fleet of 16, there are always two airborne aircraft — one flying above the Atlantic Ocean, and one above the Pacific Ocean.
“Having these aircraft readily available for the warfighter is of the utmost importance because its presence alone to adversaries is a deterrent for nuclear war,” said John. “It’s certainly nice to know that what you do every day has an impact on our national defense. And, as a veteran, it’s also nice knowing Northrop Grumman takes every precaution possible to ensure our service members receive safe, quality products.”
The Next Chapter
In May 2022, the first E-6B arrived at the Lake Charles site.
“Being part of this makes me hopeful that what we do now — how we execute, the way we develop a relationship with the Navy — has potential for bringing many more opportunities to Lake Charles,” said John. “This could, in turn, provide great employment opportunities for future employees right here — maybe even for my own children.”
The AMFC’s close-knit community that has endured over the decades is precisely why John — a third-generation employee — remains at Lake Charles.
“My grandfather and dad retired from this company, so it’s in my blood. I love working here; I don’t ever want to leave,” said John. “The people at this site are some of the best I know, and I’ve lived all over the country. You can’t get better than the people in southwest Louisiana, in my opinion. It’s a family environment.”
The team is looking forward to their new chapter with confidence, ready to successfully handle whatever opportunities come next. As John shared, it’s just what they do.
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