The F-35A Lightning II fighter jet is not only the newest addition to the Air Force’s arsenal of aircraft, but it is also one of its most advanced. With its improved stealth, avionics and logistical support, the aircraft can enter enemy radar, accomplish its mission and leave the hostile area without being seen.
Behind all that technology is a skilled team of Nellis Air Force Base Airmen at the 57th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Lightning Aircraft Maintenance Unit working around the clock to ensure the F-35A maintains its lethal edge.
Like most AMUs, Lightning has different shops to focus on specific maintenance roles for the jet. Crew chiefs, avionics technicians and weapons loaders are all technical experts in their specific role.
“Avionics will take care of the electrical systems, crew chiefs will take care of all the moving parts and weapons will load the munitions onto the aircraft,” said Airman 1st Class Zachary Cray, 57th AMXS Lightning AMU crew chief.
With almost anything that can be taken apart and put back together, there is an instruction manual; however, the Air Force’s focus on empowering innovative Airmen has allowed today’s Airmen to develop improved processes to replace decades-old manuals.
“Maintenance is by-the-book, as it should be, but every so often the book doesn’t have the solution we’re looking for or maybe the solution isn’t quite working like we had expected it,” said Senior Airman Kathy Butler, 57th AMXS Lightning AMU avionics specialist. “Being a new aircraft, we get sort of a creative freedom, if you will, to try new solutions. When we find something that works better, we relay the information to the other F-35A squadrons in the Air Force — just as they do with us.”
Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Luke AFB, Arizona, Hill AFB, Utah and Eglin AFB, Fla., are just some of the other homes of the F-35A and each maintenance unit communicates new struggles and solutions between each other.
Staff Sgt. Bryan Roberts, 57th AMXS Lightning AMU weapons loader, said a lot of the NCOs in the unit are coming from other airframes and have to learn the F-35 system from scratch; whereas, the younger guys have recently completed the Air Force’s formal training familiarization with the aircraft.
Prior to becoming the activity security manager, Staff Sgt. Joshua Harris, 57th AMXS Lightning AMU activity security manager, worked on the A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support aircraft.
“The transition from working on A-10s to F-35As was a complete one-eighty,” said Harris. “It’s like working on a ‘69 Chevy and then a new Lamborghini. I mean the tools are different, the tests are different, and the technical data is just vastly different — it’s like left brain versus right brain.”
Cray said the F-35A is still in its early years, which means there aren’t decades of battle-tested procedures that were innovated by maintenance Airmen like there are with older aircraft.
Harris said communication between the different shops is important because if the F-35A has an avionics issue, it might still require weapons and crew chiefs to perform initial maintenance so that the avionics shop can fix what they need to fix.
When the tasks are done, Airmen will usually gather in the break room to study for upgrade training tests, play cards or ping pong, or just chat and catch up with each other until the next shift transitions in.
As with most aircraft maintenance squadrons, Lightning AMU is a three-shift, 24-hour operation consisting of days, mids and swings.
“The purpose of being a 24-hour operation is to make sure we have a seamless transition between shifts,” said Roberts. “Whatever one shift doesn’t complete, the other shift should be able to pick up where they left off and finish what they started, so the jet can fly the next morning.”
It takes a lot of teamwork, innovation and preparation to be able to fly eight to twelve sorties, or flights, per day. The Airmen of Lighting AMU are no exception.
“At the end of the day, you’re doing a mission that you feel is important,” said Harris. “I don’t know how guys in the medical group get motivated to do their mission, but ours is directly translatable to big Air Force by putting those planes in the air. I like what I do; it’s something that not a lot of people get to do.”
It takes a team to keep the Air Force’s newest fighter jet in the air. Between working on the flightline and hanging out in their free time, the Airmen of Lightning AMU have found that balance that keeps them at the forefront of Air Force innovation and readiness.