MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho — The F-35A is at the point in its life where it’s taking the first lap around the track away from home.
The 31st Test Evaluation Squadron from Edwards AFB, Calif., is at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, to put the aircraft, its staff and equipment, through a series of operational tests to determine just how capable the aircraft is in a forward deployed environment.
Hill AFB’s 388th and 419th Fighter Wings will conduct similar drills later this year.
Until now, the aircraft and crew have always had a hand to reach for in case things go awry. At Mountain Home AFB however, there is no existing F-35 support. Any issues the teams may run into have to be resolved without the help they’re used to.
But that’s the point.
“This is the first time we have picked everything up,” said Senior Master Sgt. James Coleman, 31st TES Aircraft Maintenance Unit superintendent. “People, aircraft and equipment are actually physically moved hundreds of miles away. We did this specifically and purposefully to a base that has no organic F-35 support.”
This level of seclusion allows the team to determine whether or not the aircraft’s new systems, such as the Autonomic Logistics Information System, can function properly when moved to a new environment.
“The biggest entity we are testing is a system called ALIS,” Coleman said. “In layman’s terms, it’s a big computer that records everything that happens with the jet, like all of our maintenance actions, flight hours, parts inquiries and technical data for repairs on the aircraft.”
ALIS, like many of the new aircraft’s implementations, works incredibly well in theory. Up until now, the Air Force has only tested that theory at homestation.
“It’s imperative the system is put through the ringer due to its heavy integration with the 5th generation fighter,” Coleman said. “Wherever there is an F-35, there is a connection to ALIS.”
ALIS isn’t the only thing being tested. The F-35 works a bit differently when it comes to getting replacement parts, and the new process is being exercised at Mountain Home AFB.
“One of the other concepts we are testing is the supply system. How do we get parts?” Coleman said. “It used to be with legacy aircraft, you order a part … and if it’s on the shelf, you get issued the part. The construct for the F-35 is a little bit different. Those parts are sequestered into a global pool that we share with all the other squadrons.”
When an F-35 team deploys, they determine which parts are most likely to need replacing and take those with them. Any other parts have to be pulled from the global pool of parts for the aircraft.
“It’s part of a ‘just-in-time’ concept,” Coleman said. “It should drastically decrease the amount of down time from not having a part.”
The F-35 is supposed to be a fighter, though. These big computerized tracking systems and weapons systems are what make this fifth-generation fighter all the more lethal than previous aircraft, right? Well, they’re testing that, too.
“We are dropping munitions over the test range,” Coleman said. “They aren’t live munitions, however, they accurately guide and track just as normal explosives do.”
And they’ve dropped quite a few of them.
“In this test alone, they nearly doubled the number of munitions dropped by an Air Force F-35A so far with 30 inert weapons deployed,” said 1st Lt. Amanda Farr, 53rd Wing Public Affairs advisor.
The pilots are working with U.S. Navy Seals, F-15s, A-10s as well Apache and Blackhawk helicopters to provide the most realistic battlefield environment. These tests are closely tracked and allow the team to assess the F-35s combat capabilities.
Once testing concludes, the aircraft’s test reports will be compiled and reviewed to declare it Initial Operational Capable or not.
“IOC is a milestone necessary to be labeled combat ready,” Coleman said. “After IOC will come FOC, which is Fully Operational Capable, that is when the assets are released and they are at Congress and the president’s level to use in strategic military functions.”
The F-35 is on its first lap around the track with a long race ahead. It’s keeping a steady pace and once its time at Mountain Home AFB is over, its place will be easier to see.