Meet a maintainer keeping the F-35 ‘flying computer’ in top shape
This article was originally published on Task and Purpose .
Master Sgt. Leah Curtin had four years of experience fixing F-15 fighter jets when she showed up to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona in 2014 to learn how to fix the much newer F-35 Lightning II. Despite her experience on the older jet, Curtin and her fellow maintainers soon realized that the F-35 is a different sort of beast.
“We were kind of trying to figure out how to maintain this brand new aircraft that is so different from legacy” aircraft, such as the F-15 or F-16, Curtin told Task & Purpose. Curtin didn’t know at the time that the new jet she was learning to fix was more than a new platform to master. It was a new type of maintenance that could have an effect on how the Air Force fights against China and other distant foes.
” We’ve had multiple units doing really good things on the how to take small groups and move forward,” Lt. Gen. Michael Loh of the Air National Guard , said to reporters in September at National Harbor’s Air & Space Forces Association’s Air Space & Cyber Conference. Loh pointed out Curtin, who can perform multiple maintenance specialties on the F-35.
” Now think about this. You are not trained to be a crew chief, or to be avionics, hydraulics, or engines. Loh stated that she took the time to learn four specialty skills.
Back in 2014, Curtin was still learning the ropes of the F-35. It is difficult to repair fighter aircraft. This is why it takes time for both individual pilots and maintenance squadrons. Curtin and her coworkers had to build that knowledge base from scratch.
“It was definitely a learning curve,” said the crew chief, who noted that the F-35 had its first flight in 2006 and arrived at its first base in 2011. It was practically an infant compared to the F-15s Curtin was used to, which first entered service in 1976. But the crew chief and her coworkers were up for the challenge.
“With safety in mind, we were always like, ‘we’ll just figure it out,'” said Curtin, who pointed out that engineers from Lockheed Martin, the F-35 manufacturer, were also there to guide the way.
One of the biggest differences between the F-35 and older jets is that F-35 maintainers can simply hook a laptop up to the jet to test out its flight controls and other diagnostics.
“This jet actually reports faults, and it tells you what’s wrong,” said Curtin, who is currently assigned to the Vermont Air National Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing. It’s not perfect. There is no perfect system. It can detect if you have a bad sensor, bad filter or any other .”
One advantage of a self-diagnosing jet means that maintainers don’t have to do a lot of digging to figure out the problem, as they might with older jets.
“Ask any crew chief who worked on an F-15 or an F-16 or an A-10, we would tell you that we don’t get as dirty as we used to on the older aircraft,” Curtin said. “Those jets broke hard, but people worked hard to fix them
One reason older jets break down so often is that they are so old. The crew chief explained that it is similar to an older car, which may require more tender loving care than a car straight from the assembly line.
” “Right now, there just aren’t a lot of breaks in the hydraulic system, fuel systems, or other components,” Curtin stated. “That could happen, you know, 20 years down the road. These jets are still .”
What makes the F-35 special is not just its young age or self-diagnosing software: it’s how all the subsystems talk with each other through software to improve the jet’s performance. That means sometimes F-35 maintenance involves simply updating the software. The system integration not only improves aircraft efficiency but also blurs the lines between maintenance specialists.
” This jet is already like an airplane and a lot the systems talk to one another,” Curtin stated. “So why can’t our maintenance personnel be able do more than what their training guideline tells them ?”
Curtin became one of the first airmen to participate in the F-35 nose-to-tail program, where maintainers pick up basic skills from outside their usual specialty. For example a fuels or avionics expert might learn the basics of how the F-35’s weapons systems work.
” We don’t load the munition but we can troubleshoot on a [weapons] rack in case a bomb didn’t drop or if it’s having difficulty communicating with the aircraft,” Curtin explained. “So, I’m still an expert on my crew chief career field but I’m kinda like a master of all trades in every other .”
The master sergeant particularly enjoys working on the F-35 engine, which she never had a chance to do on the F-15. Curtin explained that the engine of the new jet is broken down into five modules. Each module can be replaced if needed.
“That is probably my favorite part — working on the engines — where you can actually take the engine modules apart to replace them.” she said. “When the aircraft is flying and it’s put back together, you’ll be like “Yeah, I put this motor together .'”
Curtin is not the only maintainer getting to know the F-35 from nose to tail. The airman said there are about 25 other maintainers picking up similar skills in Vermont. Curtin’s Air National Guard unit is unique in that they do not need to move to another duty location every few year like their active-duty counterparts. Instead, the Air National Guard unit like Curtin’s allows airmen to stay at one base and gain expertise on aircraft. This expertise could be very useful in major conflicts where there may not be enough seats to send far into the Pacific or anywhere else.
” When we are deployed to a location and have to travel to X for two weeks with six aircraft, we don’t need to bring so many people,” Curtin explained. “We could have a weapon expert who has been trained in the operation of launching and recovering a jet, changing a tire, and other servicing .”
The Air Force faces a major problem in trying to find ways to do the job with fewer people and fewer aircraft. Part of the impetus is funding: Air Force senior leaders do not expect the service to grow any time soon, both in terms of its enlisted force and in terms of an ongoing pilot shortage that makes trained aviators an increasingly scarce resource. The manpower shortage, plus a small fleet of aircraft that is generally older than the airmen flying and fixing them, means the service wants to pack each airman and aircraft with as much operational flexibility as possible.
Sometimes that flexibility takes the form of using B-52 bombers as transport aircraft or, vice versa, using C-17 transport aircraft as bomb trucks. But for many enlisted airmen, it takes the form of a concept called “multi-capable airmen,” which means the Air Force is encouraging airmen to become Swiss Army knives who can work outside their usual job specialty. Although some airmen have criticised the concept for being a new take on the phrase “doing more with less”, service leaders insist that it will be an essential trait that will help airmen survive future battles.
Multi-capable airmen is one tenet of a larger strategy called agile combat employment, where the Air Force wants to complicate an enemy’s targeting process by operating smaller airfields across the theater of war, in contrast to the sprawling air bases built up in the United States and in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Global War on Terror.
The theory is that those large bases present juicy, all-eggs-in-one-basket targets for enemies in a future fight. The Air Force plans to deploy smaller, more dispersed airfields so that even if one airfield is destroyed, the entire operation can continue running. This is to say that the multirole maintenance pilots training at the Vermont Air National Guard are in line with the larger Air Force’s preparations for a future battle.
” I would say that one multi-capable pilot could probably do the work of at least three people,” Curtin stated.
The Vermont air guardsmen tested out the concept this summer, when 35 airmen from the 158th Fighter Wing deployed from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany to Amari Air Base, Estonia to see if they could operate with a smaller footprint than usual. The airmen completed 28 sorties and 76 flying hours, which was a success according to a press release about the exercise.
” The proof of concept proved to NATO partners that the USAF could quickly deploy to allied countries and perform 5th-generation fighter aircraft operations at non-USAF sites. Sgt. Justin Oddy, 158th Operations Support Squadron airfield manager, said at the time. “The [agile Combat Employment] concept spans the entire Air Force mission. When it comes to sortie generation this small task force demonstrated just how effective the concept was and will continue to prove to be with allied support .
Without Curtin, the operation might not have been as successful. She has been a mentor to younger maintainers over the years. Now that she is in a leadership/supervisor role, the crew chief does not get as much time working on the F-35 as she used to, but helping other airmen provides its own rewards.
” I don’t get to play as much with the jet as I would like but it is amazing to see my airmen become the experts they are.” Curtin stated “Knowing I helped train them to the best maintainers that you can be… it makes me really proud to have been a crew chief in Air Force .”
Jets don’t need to be the only thing that needs support. People also need it. Curtin was thankful for her parents, sisters and her partner, David Cruson, a fellow maintainer with eight years of experience on the F-35 and 10 on the F-15, for their support.
” They have been my biggest cheerleaders, and I couldn’t thank them enough,” she stated.
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