NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — When it comes to the F-35A, much is made of the edge its fifth-generation technology gives pilots, but America’s newest fighter aircraft is also proving capable in the hands of maintainers.
Airmen from the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings’ 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit deployed alongside the F-35A Lightning II to the Red Flag air combat exercise at Nellis AFB, Nevada, Jan. 20. Flying began Jan. 23.
Since the exercise kicked off, Hill’s Airmen have generated 155 sorties, including their first 10-jet F-35A sortie Jan. 30. They “turned around” and launched eight jets that afternoon. The Airmen will generate 16 to 18 sorties every day through Feb. 10, said 1st Lt. Devin Ferguson, assistant officer in charge of the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit.
Thus far, there have only been two non-effective sorties (when an aircraft takes off, but an issue prevents completion of the mission) — one generator failure and one landing gear problem. Even with those, the F-35A “mission-capable” rate is well above 90 percent, Ferguson said. Legacy aircraft average 70 to 85 percent mission-capable. The aircraft and Airmen are performing so well that the wings have added more F-35A sorties to the schedule.
“Normally when you come to an exercise like Red Flag you have to temper expectations when scheduling sorties because the ops-tempo is so high and there’s so much activity. It’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll run into maintenance issues,” Ferguson said. “That hasn’t been the case so far, and the issues we have had, we’ve been able to address quickly.”
Part of the success is due to the maintainer-friendly design of the jet, an improvement over fourth generation aircraft.
“The repair process is smoother with most issues we encounter than with other aircraft I’ve worked on. The jet’s systems specifically identify a break and we’re able to correct the issue and return the aircraft to service very quickly,” said Senior Master Sgt. Robert Soto, lead production superintendent for the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, a career maintainer who has worked during several Red Flags.
On Thursday, one F-35A’s generator failed. If this were an older jet – like the F-16 – maintainers would have to break out a fault-isolation manual and go through a lengthy troubleshooting process. With the F-35A, the Autonomic Logistics Information System identified the exact part that caused the generator failure, and the Airmen could quickly perform the repair and return the aircraft to service.
“This jet is proving to be one of the most reliable combat aircraft I’ve ever seen,” said Master Sgt. Kyle Kutcher, a maintenance section chief with the 419th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. Kutcher has maintained four different fighter aircraft and has attended seven Red Flags. “This jet makes it really easy for my maintainers because it’s designed to streamline maintenance procedures.”
Red Flag is providing maintainers an opportunity to “write the book” on F-35A combat maintenance. For the first time, Airmen are regenerating aircraft in a combat scenario. Jets land after a mission, are refueled, loaded with munitions, inspected for service, and prepped for flight - then head back to the fight.
“Since we’ve gone IOC, we’re combat capable. But day in and day out we’re working to increase our combat capability, and Red Flag is a great place to do that,” said Col. Michael Miles, 388th Maintenance Group commander. “We’re unlocking our aircraft’s full potential, flying more of them than ever, and doing it at combat pace.”
The maintainers are in a contested environment, too. During Red Flag, planners throw scenarios at the Airmen, denying them key capabilities. “You’ve lost aircraft systems, you’ve lost internet connectivity, or communications – now fix it.”
With a legacy platform, the responses to many of these potential problems are set in stone, or generate hours of troubleshooting, and have been for years, but for F-35A maintainers, they are learning and growing with each opportunity.
“At home, our young maintenance Airmen are practicing and learning every day. Here, we’re able to put that training into a realistic scenario and watch them succeed and learn how to overcome challenges,” Soto said. “This exercise is teaching us a lot and it’s great to see them come up with innovative solutions to problems we’ve never tested them with before.” Soto said.