ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England — When the Air Force declared the F-35A ready for combat in August 2016, Airmen at Hill Air Force Base knew they could be asked to deploy overseas at any time.
Since April 15 more than 200 Airmen from the active duty 388th and Reserve 419th Fighter Wings have been deployed overseas with 8 F-35As for the first time to Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England.
“Any time we get a chance to mobilize and deploy, it sharpens our skills,” said Col. Michael Miles, 388th Maintenance Group commander. “It’s an exciting time to be a part of the F-35A program and I am extremely proud of all our Airmen.”
From a small maintenance bay at Lakenheath, the maintainers generated 76 sorties and sustained a mission capable rate of 88 percent.
A key objective for the maintainers was testing their “deployed spares package,” a kit of spare parts and tools that could “keep them healthy” and flying for weeks as they established an F-35A sustainment supply chain. They’re pleased with the kits. They only had to special-order two parts during the deployment. As more countries begin to receive the F-35, the global supply chain will be critical in overseas deployments.
During the deployment, Hill’s Airmen forward deployed with two jets for short periods to Amari Airfield, Estonia, and Graf Ignatievo Air Base, Bulgaria.
“We moved a small contingent of people and equipment to a forward location and demonstrated the initial concept for a rapid deployment,” said Senior Master Sgt. Robert Soto, lead production superintendent for the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit and maintenance lead for the out-and-back trips.
The trips provided F-35A pilots and maintainers the experience of training in Europe and also reassured allies and partners of U.S. dedication to the enduring peace and stability of the region.
“This exercise proves that we can deploy to and operate anywhere on the globe if called,” said Chief Master Sgt. Benjamin Carpenter, superintendent of the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit.
The unit has deployed twice before, once to Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, and once to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. While those deployments helped Airmen adjust to working through maintenance issues off-station, those deployments can’t compare with the logistics required to move a maintenance unit across the Atlantic.
The trip is an important operational milestone in the life of the F-35 program as 388th and 419th Airmen continue to create a blueprint for future F-35 deployments. Maintainers are always looking for ways to improve logistics, including initial setup, sustainment of operations, parts expenditure and supply chain, Carpenter said.
The deployment is also providing young maintainers from the 388th Maintenance Group a valuable training experience.
“Our Airmen understand why we deploy, so when told we were deploying to Europe, they were ready for the challenge. It’s the mission they joined the Air Force to do,” said Capt. Christina Merritt, officer in charge of the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit. “Our maintainers are the backbone of what any flying unit does and they know that we’re making Air Force history here. They’re excited for this deployment and anything else we may support in the future.”