Reservists help keep F-35 stealthy

When the Air Force Reserve 419th Fighter Wing and active-duty 388th FW received the Air Force’s first operational F-35s in September 2015, they took responsibility for not only flying the jets, but also keeping them in top condition.

Tech. Sgt. Jake Lewis, 419th Maintenance Squadron, is a low observable journeyman for the F-35 Lightning II who helps train fellow reservists in keeping the jet stealthy.

“The LO section is a vital part of the F-35 mission,” Lewis said. “We maintain the coating so the jet can keep its level of invisibility.”

The LO section uses special coating materials to restore the “skin” that makes the F-35 stealth – one of the aircraft’s key features. The coating is just part of the F-35’s low observable stealth capabilities, along with its structural design that gives it the ability to evade radar systems and infrared sensors.

“We’re looking for nicks, gouges, scratches, or any kind of degradation in the coating that can occur during routine flying ops,” said Lewis, who has also worked on F-16 and F-22 aircraft. “Whenever a jet lands, we’re there to inspect it and make repairs if needed.”

Maintainers trace any damaged areas onto transparencies, then input their findings into a state-of-the-art 3D program that analyzes the jet’s coating to assess whether the aircraft needs immediate repair.

Lewis said technology is a major player in F-35 maintenance, from the 3D system down to the digital forms.

“It’s hard to describe the technology of the F-35 because it’s so advanced,” Lewis said. “This aircraft is incredible; it blows other fighters out of the water.”

Lewis said part of his job is to keep the jets as pristine as they were the day they rolled off Lockheed Martin’s production line. Meanwhile, Airmen here are still maintaining Hill’s fleet of F-16s.

“We care about the life cycle of the aircraft,” Lewis said. “Our job is to keep it like new. As flight hours degrade the jet, it will take lots of hard work to maintain it. We want it to last as long as the F-16 has.”

The LO section will eventually be home to more than 60 Air Force reservists and 120 active-duty personnel dedicated to preserving the jet’s stealth capabilities here at Hill AFB.

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