F-35A crew swap provides flexibility for training, combat

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An F-35A Lightning II pilot from the 388th Fighter Wing goes through pre-flight checks. Pilots and maintainers here recently completed the first F-35A rapid crew swap exercise, which cuts hours off the time between sorties. 

Maintainers and pilots in the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, recently completed the first operational rapid crew swap exercise with the F-35A Lightning II.

“Other aircraft like bombers, tankers, helicopters and twin engine fighters have been doing ‘hot crew swaps’ for some time. Until now, it hasn’t been safe to do with a single engine fighter, but the F-35s maintenance-friendly design provided Airmen here an opportunity to develop this capability,” said Col. Michael Miles, 388th Maintenance Group commander.

During a rapid crew swap, a pilot takes off, completes his mission, lands and takes on fuel while another pilot takes over the cockpit of the same fighter.

“This cuts down on the number of required maintenance actions and reduces the time it takes to generate a new sortie by up to two hours,” said 1st Lt. Ryan Naluai, assistant officer in charge of the 421st Aircraft Maintenance Unit.

“The jet’s systems report on the health of the aircraft as it is flying and after it lands. So, under these conditions, we can confidently put it back up in the air again immediately without doing a full post-operation inspection,” Naluai said. “It’s a testament to the reliability of the F-35 and the proficiency of our maintainers.”

“During home-station flying, rapid crew swaps will allow for more sorties in a condensed period of time, which will become increasingly important as three full squadrons begin flying here,” said Maj. Caleb Guthmann, 388th Fighter Wing director of staff and F-35 pilot with the 34th Fighter Squadron.  

During wartime, it allows aircraft to continually rotate into the fight, providing combat flexibility.

“Flying more sorties with less down-time proves the capability of the F-35 to fly sustained combat operations,” Guthmann said. “It gives us more time in the air to target bad guys and protect friendlies.”