HILL AIR FORCE BASE — The hype surrounding Hill Air Force Base and the F-35 has centered mostly around the impending arrival of the first combat-ready jets, a milestone scheduled for Sept. 11.
But when that first operational Lightning II touches the tarmac and the Top of Utah defense community rejoices, a group of workers on base will have their own reason to celebrate.
September also marks the two-year anniversary of when the Ogden Air Logistics Complex began performing maintenance on the next-generation fighter jet, a workload that ALC officials say is at least equally significant to the arrival of what will ultimately be 72 operational F-35 fighters divided among three squadrons.
Under a public/private partnership with the F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin, the Ogden ALC has already pumped out 13 modified or repaired F-35s since it began accepting the jets in September 2013. The complex is the only Air Force depot maintenance facility for the F-35 — and performs work on jets for all United States military services that will operate it and even for foreign countries.
Col. Stanley Springer, 309th Aircraft Maintenance Group commander, said the work his group performs now and into the future differs from the maintenance duties that will be attached to the combat jets.
“What we’re doing, and what we will do (at the ALC) is different from what a flightline mechanic would do,” he said. “We’ll do a lot of the real heavy-duty stuff.”
That “heavy duty stuff” currently includes repair work to the jet’s doors, panels, covers, wheels, brakes, landing gear and a radar housing composite shell at the nose of the plane called the “Radome.” In the the near future, work will expand to include modifications and repair to canopies, helmets, suspension and release systems that drop bombs and black boxes and other electronics.
Springer and his boss, Brig. Gen. Carl Buhler, commander of the Ogden ALC, say there are currently 100 technician jobs associated with the depot’s F-35 work. The two expect that number to double in the next year.
“What we have now is a mixture of people that have come from other weapons systems and also new hires right off the street,” Springer said. “When the workforce doubles, we expect the same thing.”
Buhler said the F-35 is a weapons systems that continues to grow and change. As the plane continues to be tested and flown, maintenance requirements are constantly in flux and can change at the turn of a wrench.
“In the Air Force we like to say flexibility is key to air power,” he said. “Well, it’s the same exact thing (in the F-35 program).”
The Ogden ALC recently completed depot-level modifications on two F-35Bs — the U.S. Marine Corps’ short takeoff and vertical landing variant of the jet. Hill’s 570th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron performed modifications on the jets on an expedited timeline to help the jet meet its targeted combat operational date in July.
Buhler said the squadron took off sections of the plane that originally were never intended to be removed. Technicians have had to attend high-precision-drilling classes, and tools are constantly upgraded.
“I’ve seen an F-16 split right down the middle and put back together,” said Greg Hoffman, director of the 570th. “But this is the most challenging maintenance job I’ve seen.”
Depending on what variant of the jet that crews are working on and how repairs or modifications are needed, technicians spend anywhere from 4,000 to 14,000 man hours on each F-35 that comes into the depot.
The depot also works to keep the jet’s software on the cutting edge. The jet contains more than 8 million lines of computer code, including advanced automation for sensors, voice recognition, and missile and threat management systems.
Dan Bennett, with the base’s 309th Software Maintenance Group, said approximately 90 percent of the jet’s functions are completed through software. Bennett is in the process of sending his government civilian workers to Fort Worth, Texas, where Lockheed Martin assembles the jets. The employees will study and become well-versed in all things software, so they can return to Hill with a first hand knowledge.