Murphy's Law: A Model Program


December 27, 2010: Sri Lanka is keeping its air force up to strength by having maintenance personnel spend part of their time building scale models of aircraft, which are then sold for $40 and up. It's either this, or lose many scarce maintenance personnel. All this can be blamed on an outbreak of peace.

The Sri Lankan civil war ended in early 2009, and the country found itself with a large air force. Over a hundred new aircraft had been bought in the previous decade, and thousands of maintenance and support personnel were recruited to keep them flying. During the last few years of the war, warplanes were in the air as much as possible, and it was all possible because the air force had sufficient skilled, and hard working, technicians and mechanics to perform needed maintenance. But with peace came the need to cut back on military spending, which would bankrupt the country if it continued at wartime rates (consuming 29 percent of GDP).

For the air force, huge savings could be achieved by simply not flying as much. Aircraft are very expensive to keep in the air, mainly because of the high price of fuel and spare parts. A small percentage of the cost is personnel, as it takes up to 30 hours (for older, and more complex aircraft) of maintenance per flight hour. In the months after the war ended, the air force maintenance personnel went from working over 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to having trouble finding enough useful to do for 40 hours a week. The air force stopped recruiting some types of maintenance personnel, and sought ways to hang on to key mechanics and technicians. Than it was discovered that some of the technical personnel built these aircraft models as a hobby. The skills needed to build these aircraft replicas were easy to pick up for men who knew how to repair and upgrade aircraft.

So one helicopter squadron has set up a workshop to build aircraft models. The income keeps many of the underemployed maintenance personnel in uniform. There is still some aircraft maintenance work, but not enough to keep the squadron technicians and mechanics employed full time.

Other squadrons have sought outside work doing aircraft maintenance, or anything similar. Such use of military personnel for outside work is nothing unique to Sri Lanka, or the 21st century. Professional armies have long been used for civilian projects some of the time, in order to make it possible to keep more troops on the payroll.


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