Luke Air Force Base has long been known as fighter country. In addition to the F-16s that have been a staple of the West Valley for many years, the base will soon be receiving its first F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, and training pilots on these jets will become part of the wing’s mission.
New jets come with new squadrons, and the 61st Aircraft Maintenance Unit will be the first F-35 AMU to be operational at Luke.
“Our mission at the 61st AMU is to stand up F-35 capability and operations at Luke, while establishing capability to train pilots,” said Capt. Joseph Langan, 61st AMU officer in charge. “The F-16s will remain a part of Luke for years to come, but over the next five years the F-35 mission will slowly start to increase.”
There will eventually be 144 aircraft and six F-35 squadrons at Luke. The F-35s haven’t arrived yet, but that’s not stopping the 61st AMU from preparing their unit.
“We expect to receive our first F-35 aircraft soon, but in the meantime, our main focus is on training,” Langan said. “About three-quarters of the AMU have no experience at all. So our main priority is getting the maintainers trained up.”
All maintainers will receive F-35 training, but the crew chiefs will receive it first.
“Our crew chiefs are scheduled to go through transition courses at Detachment 12, 372nd Training Squadron here on Luke,” said Staff Sgt. Arthur Verchot, 61st AMU F-35 crew chief. “The training will take 90 to 120 days for the entire course sequence.”
Once the crew chiefs are done with classes, they will work on an actual F-35 aircraft to get on-the-job training.
“A lot of the OJT will be difficult since the maintainers aren’t used to the new aircraft,” Verchot said. “But most of the training will be common to them such as servicing, launching and much more.”
Luckily for the 61st AMU, there are some maintainers from F-35 units who can lend a hand to the up-and-coming F-35 maintainers.
“We’re very lucky to have a dozen individuals in the AMU and the back shops that have prior F-35 experience,” Langan said. “We’re relying heavily on them to train the rest of the maintainers.”
The new aircraft come with a new building. The 61st AMU has moved into an existing building that was redesigned to accommodate the F-35.
“This entire building was renovated and several additions were put on,” Langan said. “It’s a great facility. It’s very rare that maintainers get a brand new building, so we’re very thankful to have this opportunity.”
With the new F-35 on its way, the 61st AMU is ready to hit the ground running.
“One thing I tell the guys is you have to be constantly thinking outside the box,” Langan said. “This isn’t just your standard F-16 AMU. We’re developing how F-35s will operate in the future. It’s a challenge but it’s exciting as well.”