F-35A, Maintainers Proving Reliable At Red Flag
(Source: US Air Force; issued Feb 06, 2017)
NELLIS AFB, Nev. --- When it comes to the F-35A, much is made of the edge its fifth-generation technology gives pilots, but America’s newest fighter aircraft is also proving capable in the hands of maintainers.
Airmen from the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings’ 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit deployed alongside the F-35A Lightning II to the Red Flag air combat exercise at Nellis AFB, Nevada, Jan. 20. Flying began Jan. 23.
Since the exercise kicked off, Hill’s Airmen have generated 155 sorties, including their first 10-jet F-35A sortie Jan. 30. They “turned around” and launched eight jets that afternoon. The Airmen will generate 16 to 18 sorties every day through Feb. 10, said 1st Lt. Devin Ferguson, assistant officer in charge of the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit.
Thus far, there have only been two non-effective sorties (when an aircraft takes off but an issue prevents completion of the mission) one generator failure and one landing gear problem. Even with those, the F-35A “mission-capable” rate is well above 90 percent, Ferguson said. Legacy aircraft average 70 to 85 percent mission-capable. The aircraft and Airmen are performing so well that the wings have added more F-35A sorties to the schedule.
“Normally when you come to an exercise like Red Flag you have to temper expectations when scheduling sorties because the ops-tempo is so high and there’s so much activity. It’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll run into maintenance issues,” Ferguson said. “That hasn’t been the case so far, and the issues we have had, we’ve been able to address quickly.”
Part of the success is due to the maintainer-friendly design of the jet, an improvement over fourth generation aircraft.
“The repair process is smoother with most issues we encounter than with other aircraft I’ve worked on. The jet’s systems specifically identify a break and we’re able to correct the issue and return the aircraft to service very quickly,” said Senior Master Sgt. Robert Soto, lead production superintendent for the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, a career maintainer who has worked during several Red Flags.
On Thursday, one F-35A’s generator failed. If this were an older jet – like the F-16 – maintainers would have to break out a fault-isolation manual and go through a lengthy troubleshooting process. With the F-35A, the Autonomic Logistics Information System identified the exact part that caused the generator failure, and the Airmen could quickly perform the repair and return the aircraft to service.
Red Flag is also providing maintainers an opportunity to “write the book” on F-35A combat maintenance. For the first time, Airmen are regenerating aircraft in a combat scenario. Jets land after a mission, are refueled, loaded with munitions, inspected for service, and prepped for flight - then head back to the fight.
“Since we’ve gone IOC, we’re combat capable. But day in and day out we’re working to increase our combat capability, and Red Flag is a great place to do that,” said Col. Michael Miles, 388th Maintenance Group commander. “We’re unlocking our aircraft’s full potential, flying more of them than ever, and doing it at combat pace.”
The maintainers are in a contested environment too. During Red Flag, planners throw scenarios at the Airmen, denying them key capabilities. “You’ve lost aircraft systems, you’ve lost internet connectivity, or communications – now fix it.”
With a legacy platform, the responses to many of these potential problems are set in stone, or generate hours of troubleshooting, and have been for years, but for F-35A maintainers, they are learning and growing with each opportunity.
“At home, our young maintenance Airmen are practicing and learning every day. Here, we’re able to put that training into a realistic scenario and watch them succeed and learn how to overcome challenges,” Soto said. “This exercise is teaching us a lot and it’s great to see them come up with innovative solutions to problems we’ve never tested them with before.” Soto said.
Reservists Take On ‘Enemy’ At F-35A Red Flag Debut
(Source: US Air Force; dated Feb 03, issued Feb 06, 2017)
NELLIS AFB, Nev. --- Nine Air Force Reserve F-35A pilots and 16 maintainers from the 419th Fighter Wing are taking on the world’s greatest aggressor fleet during Red Flag 17-1 held at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
The reservists joined about 200 personnel and 13 F-35A Lightning IIs from the active duty 388th FW to debut the Air Force’s newest fighter jet at the premier air-to-air combat training exercise from Jan. 23 to Feb. 10.
The Hill AFB pilots and maintainers are working with other Air Force F-16s and F-22s and allies from Great Britain and Australia to participate as the friendly, or “blue air,” flying combat scenarios against the enemy “red air” from the 64th Aggressor Squadron here.
“Red Flag offers intensive training and is a tremendous learning experience,” said Lt. Col. Dave DeAngelis, commander of the 419th Operations Group, Detachment 1. “The aggressor pilots are among the best of the best and spend their days learning the tactics of enemy air forces, so it definitely puts us to the test.” DeAngelis is an F-16 software engineer who is on continuous orders for the next three years in support of the F-35A program at Hill.
“We focus on adversary tactics all the time, so we are subject matter experts on how those [enemy] aircraft operate and perform. Then we replicate that here,” said Maj. Mark Klein, an Air Force Reserve pilot who flies with the 64th AS. Aggressor pilots say it’s a good day when they’re losing because it means the blue forces are winning the “war.”
The F-35 is providing offensive and defensive counter air, suppression of enemy air defense, and close air support against the enemy forces and is performing exceptionally well.
“Our stealthiness is proving very useful,” said Maj. Jayson Rickard, a Reserve F-35A pilot. “We’re striking targets, killing advanced surface-to-air missiles, and getting some air-to-air kills.” Rickard flies for Delta Air Lines and is also on three years of continuous orders to support the F-35A mission at Hill.
On the Nellis flightline, Hill’s F-35 maintainers are challenged to keep up with the high operations tempo and are generating eight-ship sorties twice daily. So far, F-35As here have flown 138 sorties with only a handful of maintenance issues.
“This jet is proving to be one of the most reliable combat aircraft I’ve ever seen,” said Master Sgt. Kyle Kutcher, a maintenance section chief with the 419th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. Kutcher has maintained four different fighter aircraft and has attended seven Red Flags. “This jet makes it really easy for my maintainers because it’s designed to streamline maintenance procedures.”
The F-35 needs less test equipment, offers simplified operational checks, and has better part accessibility than its fourth-generation counterparts, Kutcher added.
“The ease of maintenance has been a real testament to the design of the aircraft,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Willobee, avionics specialist with the 419th AMXS. Willobee is a former F-16 maintainer and said he’s really enjoyed being part of the F-35A program.
“Pretty much everything we do is a first and it’s been great to see what this aircraft can do.”
Hill AFB will eventually be home to three operational F-35A fighter squadrons with a total of 78 aircraft by the end of 2019. The first operational F-35As arrived at Hill in October 2015 and reached initial operational capability in August 2016. The active duty 388th FW and Air Force Reserve 419th FW will fly and maintain the jet in a Total Force partnership, which capitalizes on the strength of both components.
Florida Guardsmen Fly with Combat Ready F-35s
(Source: US Air Force; dated Jan 25, issued Feb 06, 2017)
ST. AUGUSTINE, FL. --- Airman 1st Class Chris O’Toole was not prepared for just how cold and thin the air at the 388th Fighter Wing on Hill Air Force Base, Utah, would get. The base spreads across a valley wedged between the mountains that send constant cold gusts right down the flight line. As an F-16 Falcon crew chief, that’s where O’Toole spent most of his time.
"It’s super dry, like nose-bleed dry, thin, thin air,” O’Toole said. "Being a Florida boy, I never acclimated the entire time I was there."
When O’Toole’s four-year active duty enlistment ended, so did his time at Hill AFB. He returned home to the Sunshine State where he discovered the 125th Fighter Wing in Jacksonville. He immediately signed up with only a single hiccup: he had to move on from his beloved F-16 and learn to crew chief the F-15 Eagle.
It’s been eight years since then, and just like O’Toole, the 388th FW at Hill AFB has also moved on from the F-16. They, along with the Air Force Reserve 419th FW, are now home to the F-35A Lightning II – the most advanced multi-role fighter jet in the world.
The U.S. Air Force declared the F-35 at Hill AFB "combat ready” in August 2016. Five months later, they tested that declaration in exercise Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, from Jan. 23 to Feb. 10.
“Our Airmen are excited to bring the F-35 to a full-spectrum combat exercise,” said Col. David Lyons, 388th Fighter Wing commander. “This battle space is going to be a great place to leverage our stealth and interoperability. It’s a lethal platform and I’m confident we will prove to be an invaluable asset to the commander.”
Red Flag is the Air Force's premier air-to-air combat training exercise. Maj. Jeffrey Falanga, 414th Combat Training Squadron director of operations, said “Red Flag is vitally important because it provides a realistic training environment for the air, ground, space and cyber domains to be able to practice interoperability both with U.S., joint and coalition forces.”
Falanga said the significance of this Red Flag is that it will be the first Red Flag with USAF F-35 participation. He said the addition of the unique capabilities the F-35 provides, from a scenario generation perspective, meant the planning team had to increase the threat they provide the training audience, both in capabilities and numbers.
"What the F-35 offers our training audience is the unique capabilities of the platform enable it to take down threats that would not be as survivable for some of the other platforms,” Falanga said. "By removing some of those threats, by having a more survivable platform against some of the threats that we will present our training audience, it increases the effectiveness and survivability of our 4th Gen fighter assets."
The unique capabilities the 5th generation fighters, such as the F-22 Raptor and the F-35, bring to combat include stealth and the ability to destroy a target beyond visual range, among others. This dramatically increases the lethality of the attack package, which required the 414th CTS to modify the scenario to rival these advantages.
Pilots and maintainers from the 125th FW deployed for three weeks to Nellis AFB to train in the multi-domain, multi-national Red Flag. While there, they trained with multiple fighter and bomber units against a robust air-to-air and surface-to-air threat. The threat continuously increased in complexity over the course of the exercise, simulating high-end, major combat operations.
“This exercise was an outstanding opportunity to hone our combat skills,” said Lt. Col. George Downs, 159th Fighter Squadron commander. “The ability to train with multiple coalition assets, against a high-end threat, is something that we cannot replicate in our daily training in Jacksonville.”
This training is even more critical as the 159th Fighter Squadron prepares for its upcoming European deployment in the summer of 2017.
Lt. Col. Mansour Elhihi, 125th Maintenance Squadron commander and F-15C pilot, said one of the typical missions they train for is an offensive counter air mission where they escort assets in to collect information or drop bombs. In this scenario, the F-35s would play the role of striker, and the F-15Cs would escort them to their targets.
"We would go in initially and sanitize the airspace,” Elhihi said. "We would ensure that before additional U.S. assets were brought into a certain arena there are no air threats."
While the F-15C lacks the technological upgrades of 5th Generation aircraft, it remains one of the deadliest aircraft ever created with 104 confirmed kills and zero deaths. Plus, the 45-year-old aircraft now fly retrofitted with the state-of-the-art Advanced Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radar, an all-weather, multimode radar system in the same family as the 5th Generation aircraft. Elhihi said both generations complement each other, and by utilizing the diverse strengths, they can fight a more successful, full-spectrum war.
Along that same line, coalition forces from the U.K. and Australia joined U.S. forces at Red Flag. With more than 4,000 participants and nearly 100 aircraft, this is one the largest Red Flags in history. Elhihi said working together in a Large Force Exercise (LFE) such as this not only lets coalition members learn how to work together effectively, it also builds lifelong relationships between the participating countries and service members.
"By the end, it really truly builds this great bond between our allies,” Elhihi said, "so that when we do have time to answer our nation’s call, we’re ready to fight together."
The Red Flag exercise has a history going back to the 1970s. During the Vietnam War, leadership observed that pilots who survived seven to 10 missions had a much higher survivability overall than pilots without the same level of battle involvement. So, in order to get pilots the experience they needed to survive in war, Gen. Robert J. Dixon established the first Red Flag training exercise in 1975.
Today, Red Flag serves the same purpose: to prepare deploying pilots and maintainers for the rigors of war. Elhihi said units are required to complete an LFE like Red Flag before deploying for a real-world mission. The principle is that by simulating real-world conditions, training becomes engrained in memory, creating a seamless transition from the training environment to a combat zone.
"The intent of Red Flag is take an Airman and put them into a realistic combat-like training scenario so when they deploy it does not feel like the first time,” Elhihi said.
Eight years after he left the 388th FW, now Tech Sgt. O’Toole once again shared a flight line with his old unit. This time he was working as a crew chief on the F-15, and they were on the F-35, but the goal was the same. At Red Flag, just like in any real-world event, everyone must work together to overcome enemy forces and accomplish the mission.
O’Toole said he has nothing but positive things to say about his old squadron and the aircraft they’re working on now, but being back home in Florida and working for the 125th FW has given him the life he’s always wanted.
"Being able to do what I love to do and serve and be with my family is just…I couldn’t ask for anything better,” O’Toole said.