JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON –
Two F-35A Lightning II aircraft taxied down the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson pavement and pulled up alongside F-22 Raptors outside the 525th Fighter Squadron’s kennels Oct. 26. A crowd of Airmen waited near heaters outside as the airplanes and crew chiefs performed their ritual dance of flap and arm movements.
After the aircraft shut down, the Airmen - a mix of maintainers and weapons loaders from the 525th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, 90th Aircraft Maintenance Unit and 477th Fighter Group from JBER, and the 354th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron from Eielson Air Force Base - surrounded the Lightnings and began to conduct the usual inspections.
It was all part of two days of training as both groups fostered the Agile Combat Employment idea, learning to take on other jobs to ensure capabilities in austere or degraded environments. Day one was the JBER Airmen learning the F-35; the second day, the 354th AMXS Airmen learned the F-22s.
Senior Airman Adam Lehman, a native of Port Royal, Pennsylvania, is a crew chief for one of the F-35s, and helped teach some of the 525th AMU Airmen about the differences between his aircraft and theirs.
“As of now, we’re teaching them the launch, recovery, and refueling procedures,” Lehman said.
Once the plane is on the ground, he explained, they marshal it to a parking place, then conduct the Vehicle Systems Integration Test - the sequence of moving all the flaps and moving parts. The pilot then shuts the engines down, exits, and tells the crew chief all the flight information including issues that may have come up.
“Then there’s the Post-Operation Service - we look over the whole aircraft,” Lehman said. “We look at panels and major components and acknowledge any leaks or damage that may need repair.”
For one person, this service takes about an hour, although it can be broken out among two or three Airmen.
“It’s 100-percent satisfying,” he said. “The job is rewarding - you see the jet come down, and your work lets them go up again and allows the pilot to return safely.”
The idea to bring the groups together to learn came from Tech. Sgt. Tyler Frantz, now with the 525th AMU, because he used to work on F-35s, and Master Sgt. Brian Craig, production superintendent for the 355th AMU Falcons, who was previously stationed at JBER before moving to Eielson.
“Fifth-generation interoperability is going to enable us to minimize manning in forward operations and ease the maintenance impacts,” Frantz said. “It’s also extending Pacific Air Forces’ lethality and reach.”
While the geographic proximity made coordination fairly easy, it wasn’t the intent, Frantz said.
“The focus is not for base-to-base diverts,” he said. “It’s geared toward forward-operation abilities for training and hindrance.”
Craig said the training mission was a resounding success.
“This is just the initial stage, to identify limiting factors,” Craig said. “There are a few things we’re going to talk to leadership about, but we’re going to do it again - every time, we’ll get more and more qualifications, to make it as fluid and get as many people qualified as possible. Eielson and JBER are the main bases, but we go other places within the Joint Pacific-Alaska Range Complex, so now we can go anywhere in JPARC and turn fifth-generation aircraft from anywhere.”
Eighteen crew chiefs, 14 from JBER and four from Eielson, and two three-person weapons-loading teams participated, meaning when the F-22s and F-35s are working together, maintainers will be able to trade capabilities.
Despite the chill on the flight line, the Airmen all seemed enthused about the opportunity.
“I’m super excited,” said Staff Sgt. Andrew Johnson of the 354th, a native of El Paso, Texas. “This provides operability for us. If happened, they could do it for us rather than a crew of us coming down.”
Full-time Reservist Tech. Sgt. Christopher Graham, a crew chief with the 477th FG, was also in the mix.
“It’s the first time I’ve been with an F-35, really,” he said. The most interesting thing today has been learning from each other and meeting these other individuals. It’s nice to have the jets parked right next door for comparison.”
The Airmen both installations chose for the training made the success possible, Craig said.
“Both bases picked very high-level maintainers, and they made it seem very easy,” he explained. “Thanks to JBER for setting everything up for us and inviting us into their home.”
As the Department of Defense increases its focus on pacing threats, the hard work by maintainers across the force and throughout Alaska ensures Airmen are ready to provide top cover for the United States and allies throughout the Indo-Pacific area.