We’ve written extensively about different types of aircraft in the Department of Defense's inventory, about parts procurement, and even how foreign nationals can source parts and service contracts. But what about the aircraft themselves? How are they maintained? And not just in terms of the nuts and bolts of day-to-day maintenance and repairs for flight operations, but long-term sustainability.

This is particularly important for a fleet that is largely made up of aging legacy airframes, many of which are three, four, five, or even six decades old. Aircraft sustainment is the comprehensive strategy to ensure that the DOD’s fleet of aircraft are maintained, repaired, and kept in optimal condition to remain worldwide capable, anytime, anywhere. 

Whether an airframe is on the edge of retirement or fresh off the assembly line, sustainment is vital to a long and fortuitous lifespan.

Greenwood Aerospace is your leader in aircraft sustainment, government procurement, aircraft and parts storage and distribution, and more. We extend our expert sustainment and support services to all types of airframes, including:

And these are only a handful of the many aircraft we help sustain. To learn more about what we provide your flight program, contact us here or email us at sales@governmentprocurement.com. We can't wait to get started! 

Now, join us as we explore all the ins and outs of aircraft sustainment, as well as how we can keep your operations in the air and on time.

What is Aircraft Sustainment? 

In simple terms, aircraft sustainment is the ongoing process of ensuring the operational readiness and longevity of aircraft throughout their service life. It encompasses maintenance, repair, and logistics activities aimed at preventing failures, addressing wear and tear, and upgrading systems to meet evolving standards. Sustainment efforts focus on maximizing aircraft availability, minimizing downtime, and optimizing cost-effectiveness.

Key components include: 

  • Scheduled maintenance
  • Parts replacement
  • System upgrades to enhance performance and safety

Sustainment strategies also involve effective supply chain management for timely access to spare parts, comprehensive training programs for maintenance personnel, and continuous monitoring of aircraft health through advanced diagnostic technologies. The goal is simple: keep aircraft flying safely and efficiently while minimizing disruptions and controlling overall life cycle costs.

Aircraft Sustainment Goals

Aircraft sustainment aims to ensure that military aircraft are available and ready for use when needed and can perform their assigned missions safely and effectively. Military aircraft are built to remain in the fleet for many years, although most of the U.S.’s fleets of military jets have far exceeded expectations. So, the sort of baseline expectation of aircraft sustainment is to ensure the fleets meet their expected lifespans. But since most of our aircraft have already exceeded their expected lifespans, then the goal is to meet the expanded timelines for the fleet. The DOD is highly interested in wringing every possible flight hour out of their aircraft. 

Thankfully, technological advances are providing many more tools in the toolbox for the military to use in their sustainment practices. Here are just a few:

  • Incorporate advanced technologies such as IoT, AI, and Big Data analytics to enhance aircraft sustainment.
  • Implement a proactive maintenance approach to reduce unscheduled maintenance and downtime.
  • Create a centralized system to manage aircraft maintenance schedules and records for better tracking and accountability.
  • Establish partnerships with suppliers to ensure the timely availability of spare parts and components.
  • Formulate a training program for maintenance personnel to ensure they have the necessary skills and knowledge to perform effective aircraft maintenance.
  • Conduct regular inspections to identify and address issues before they become major problems.
  • Develop a comprehensive aircraft sustainment plan that includes both short-term and long-term objectives.
  • Implement a continuous improvement process to identify opportunities for improvement and implement corrective actions.

Regulations & Policies That Impact Sustainment 

There is not one single regulation or policy in the military that impacts sustainment; each branch has entire libraries of regulations dedicated to aircraft maintenance. This quote from the “Examination of the U.S. Air Force's Aircraft Sustainment Needs in the Future and Its Strategy to Meet Those Needs (2011)” sums it up nicely:

“The complexity of the Air Force sustainment enterprise is reflected in the myriad of statutes, regulations, and policies that the Air Force must consider when performing sustainment tasks.” 

They go on to list a handful of the federal codes related to this sustainment, such as:

As you can see, aircraft sustainment is swimming in regulations. 

Beyond these specific federal codes, sustainment protocols also govern more broad concerns, specifically: 

  • Airworthiness
  • Rapid response process
  • System integrity

Let's take a closer look at each and how they impact the aircraft sustainment process.


According to a Government Accountability Office study, over a ten-year period (FY11-FY21), only four aircraft types of 49 reviewed met their mission readiness goals.

A chart from the GAO analysis of Army, Navy, and Air Force data, detailing such aircraft features as air refueling, cargo, command and control, and rotary.

And actually, the overall readiness and airworthiness are alarmingly bad for all of these. While this doesn’t comprise the entire fleet, it is a broad section of it, definitely wide enough for a representative sampling of the entire fleet. What is particularly alarming is that commercial airline fleets consider anything below 98 percent ready-to-fly rates as subpar. 

Sustainment efforts must align with established airworthiness regulations, covering everything from routine checks to major overhauls. This includes clear and concise record-keeping to demonstrate compliance with scheduled maintenance, inspections, and any modifications made to the aircraft. Airworthiness requirements also mandate swift incorporation of safety directives and service bulletins issued by manufacturers or aviation authorities. Essentially, in aircraft sustainment, meeting and exceeding airworthiness standards isn't just a box to check – it's the lifeline that ensures the continued safe operation of aircraft in the skies.

Rapid Response Process 

HR offices and teams often employ Rapid Response Processes to address manpower issues in the workplace. It is a similar concept in aircraft sustainability. As a given aircraft’s mission capability rate begins to drop, the best course of action is to address the situation immediately. The rapid response process in aircraft sustainment involves a systematic approach to problem-solving that ensures timely and effective solutions. The process begins with identifying the problem, which can be done through various means such as regular inspections, monitoring, or reports from pilots or maintenance personnel.

Once the problem is identified, a “Tiger Team” team of experts is assembled to investigate and diagnose the issue. This team may include engineers, technicians, and other specialists with the necessary skills and knowledge to identify the root cause of the problem.

System Integrity 

System integrity ensures that all systems on an aircraft or weapon system work and function as designed. Modern aircraft are incredibly complicated, producing enormous amounts of electrical power to operate their systems. Every aircraft is built with miles of electrical wire, cables, hydraulic lines, etc. Maintaining these systems is a real chore but is the backbone of maintaining system integrity.

System integrity always starts on the flightline or in the phase docks. It starts with identifying weaknesses and determining a solution. But it isn’t just the aircraft that has weak points. The logistics chain is a pivotal part of the process. Waiting on parts not only keeps that one aircraft out of the air but also strains the remainder of the fleet. The unit must either scrub the mission altogether or pull assets from another mission. 

Challenges of Aircraft Sustainment 

There are many challenges to aircraft sustainment as we see it today. The first is operations tempo. Aircraft are meant to be flown, but it takes a toll when they are flying combat operations non-stop for two decades. Not all aircraft were subjected to this, but many were. 

The next is just age. Our jets are old. The youngest B-52 is a 1964 model, the same with the KC-135 series. The F-15 was first flown as a prototype in 1972 and entered service in 1976. It has been in continuous service for 47 years, which is unheard of for a fighter. Parts supplies dry up over time, and it is even harder when the fleet is averaging just shy of 30 years in age. 

And these are just the primary challenges. Other hurdles that aerospace companies, contractors, and government and military entities have to reckon with include: 

  • Technological Complexity: Modern aircraft are equipped with advanced avionics, materials, and propulsion systems, making maintenance and repairs more intricate and requiring specialized expertise.
  • Supply Chain Vulnerabilities: Especially in recent years, dependence on global supply chains for spare parts has led to disruptions, delays, and potential shortages, impacting the timely execution of crucial maintenance.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Stringent and evolving airworthiness regulations demand continuous adaptation, adding complexity to sustainment processes and necessitating ongoing training for maintenance personnel.
  • Cost Pressures: Balancing the need for comprehensive maintenance with cost constraints is an ongoing challenge, requiring efficient resource allocation and strategic decision-making to control expenses.
  • Data Management: The increasing volume of data generated by modern aircraft systems demands robust data management and analysis capabilities for effective condition monitoring, predictive maintenance, and trend analysis.
  • Human Capital: Skilled maintenance personnel are in high demand, and attracting, training, and retaining qualified individuals is a persistent challenge for the industry.
  • Environmental Considerations: Adhering to evolving environmental standards and practices, such as the reduction of carbon emissions, adds an extra layer of complexity to sustainment strategies and decisions.

Whether dealing with advanced technology or global supply chains, the bottom line is clear: safety and airworthiness come first. Success hinges on balancing costs with strict adherence to regulations, ensuring aircraft not only stay in the air but do so safely and efficiently. Meeting the challenges of aircraft sustainment early and head-on is necessary for the ongoing success of any flight program.

A close-up of the technology that goes into an aircraft wing

Technology for Sustainment 

Modern and emerging tech offers a lot of key resources to optimize fleet health for aging aircraft. Another critical activity is incorporating advanced technologies such as IoT, AI, and Big Data analytics to enhance aircraft sustainment. These technologies can provide valuable insights into aircraft performance and maintenance needs, allowing maintenance teams to make data-driven decisions about maintenance and repair requirements.

Let's take a closer look at these technological innovations in regards to modern sustainment efforts.

Internet of Things

The Internet of Things, or IoT, enables real-time monitoring of aircraft systems and components through connected sensors and devices. This constant data flow allows for immediate awareness of any potential issues or changes in performance, making it invaluable for aerospace companies in their constant search for the best aircraft sustainment processes.

More benefits of IoT in sustainment efforts include: 

  • Data Collection and Analysis: IoT devices collect a vast amount of data on various parameters, such as engine health, component wear, and environmental conditions. This data is then analyzed to identify patterns, trends, and potential areas of concern, facilitating more informed decision-making in aircraft sustainment.
  • Predictive Maintenance: With continuous monitoring and analysis, the IoT supports predictive maintenance models. By detecting early signs of wear or potential failures, maintenance activities can be scheduled proactively, minimizing downtime and reducing the likelihood of unexpected issues during operation.
  • Optimized Maintenance Planning: IoT data provides insights into the actual usage and performance of aircraft components. This information contributes to more accurate and tailored maintenance planning, ensuring that parts are replaced or serviced based on their real-time condition rather than predefined schedules.
  • Efficient Supply Chain Management: The IoT improves the efficiency of the supply chain by providing real-time visibility into the availability and status of spare parts. This helps in optimizing inventory levels, reducing the time it takes to procure necessary components, and minimizing delays in the maintenance process.
  • Enhanced Diagnostics: Connected sensors can quickly identify and transmit diagnostic information about potential problems or faults. This facilitates rapid troubleshooting, allowing maintenance teams to pinpoint issues more efficiently and accurately, speeding up the resolution process.
  • Remote Monitoring and Control: IoT connectivity allows for remote monitoring and control of aircraft systems. This capability is particularly valuable for assessing the health of aircraft operating in remote locations, enabling proactive maintenance actions or dispatching support as needed.

Artificial Intelligence

In much the same ways as IoT assists aircraft sustainment, AI has become a cutting-edge tool in aerospace processes. AI in diagnostics can work through vast amounts of data from various aircraft systems. It can analyze this data with speed and accuracy beyond human capability, identifying patterns, trends, and potential anomalies that might indicate issues with components or systems.

Equally as useful, AI algorithms can predict potential failures and maintenance needs by recognizing subtle patterns in data. This enables a shift from reactive maintenance to proactive maintenance, reducing downtime and extending the lifespan of critical components.

Other functions of AI in aircraft sustainment include: 

  1. Fault Detection and Isolation: AI can quickly and accurately detect faults in complex systems by analyzing data from multiple sensors. It can then isolate the root cause of the issue, aiding maintenance crews in pinpointing the specific components that require attention without extensive manual troubleshooting.
  2. Efficient Decision-Making: AI systems provide maintenance crews with data-driven insights and recommendations, streamlining decision-making processes. This efficiency is particularly crucial in time-sensitive situations, where rapid and accurate assessments are necessary to maintain aircraft safety and operational continuity.
  3. Adaptive Learning: AI systems can continuously learn and adapt to evolving conditions. As they process more data over time, they improve their diagnostic accuracy and become more adept at identifying subtle changes in aircraft performance, contributing to more effective and precise diagnostics.
  4. Resource Optimization: By accurately predicting maintenance needs, AI in diagnostics helps optimize the allocation of resources. Maintenance teams can focus their efforts on components that genuinely require attention, reducing unnecessary inspections and minimizing downtime.
  5. Cost Reduction: Proactive maintenance, efficient resource allocation, and optimized decision-making driven by AI diagnostics can lead to significant cost reductions over the lifecycle of an aircraft. By preventing unplanned maintenance events and extending the lifespan of components, AI contributes to overall cost-effectiveness in aircraft sustainment.

Big Data Software 

Some programs are available for data analytics to provide predictive maintenance solutions for aircraft. Planners and analysts can drill down and determine where weaknesses exist by studying the historical trends and analysis for a given airframe. In fact, they can even pinpoint systems, sub-systems, and components that are prone to failure. Of course, these are not fool-proof. There is no way to predict parts or component failure with complete accuracy. The best software can do is track trends and provide a ballpark wag. At the end of the day, it falls on the shoulders of the line maintenance to monitor issues with aircraft. They really are the first line of defense in aircraft sustainment. 

Procure Expert Aircraft Sustainment Services from Greenwood Aerospace

Aircraft sustainment is really just a fancy way of saying, “Take care of your fleet.” It always starts at the ground level, with eyeballs on aircraft. Software suites can provide incredible insight into the overall fleet health, but they completely rely on real people inspecting airplanes, troubleshooting problems, and making repairs. Aircraft sustainment is managed at high levels, but it comes to fruition in the everyday operations of the fleet. 

At Greenwood Aerospace, it’s our job to keep your missions in flight and on time. Through our advanced aircraft sustainment services, we keep your aircraft supplied with the parts they need to stay ready for any situation.

As long-standing industry experts in government procurement, contracting, and aerospace supply chain & logistics, we've established a vast network of suppliers, vendors, and contractors to ensure your aircraft always have the parts they need for every mission. If you’d like to learn more, check out more of our services at GovernmentProcurement.com.

Ready to get started? Request a quote or contact us with any questions. We look forward to supporting your mission!

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