This article was originally published on Task & Purpose.
Master Sgt. Leah Curtin had four years of experience repairing F-15 fighter aircraft when she came to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona in 2014 to learn how to repair the much newer F-35 Lightning II. Despite their experience with the older jet, Curtin and her co-handlers soon found the F-35 to be a different breed of beast.
“We were trying to figure out how to service this brand new aircraft that is so different from older aircraft like the F-15 or F-16,” Curtin told Task & Purpose. What Curtin may not have known at the time was that the jet she was learning to fix wasn’t just a new platform to master — it was a new type of maintenance that could impact how the Air Force did a possible war is being waged by China or other distant enemies.
“We had several units that did some really good things about how to get small teams together and move forward,” Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, director of the Air National Guard, told reporters at September’s Airspace and Cyber Conference of the Air & Space Forces Association at National Harbor, Maryland. Loh pointed out Curtin, who can perform several maintenance specialties on the F-35.
“Now think about it. They are only trained to become a crew chief or an avionics, hydraulics or engine mechanic. She actually took the time to learn four specialties,” said Loh.
In 2014 Curtin got to know the F-35. Fighter planes are complicated machines, and repairing them takes time, both for individual aviators and for maintenance squadrons. Curtin and her colleagues had to build this knowledge base from scratch.
“It was definitely a learning curve,” said the crew chief, noting that the F-35 made its maiden flight in 2006 and arrived at its first base in 2011. She was practically an infant compared to the F-15s that Curtin used, which first entered service in 1976. But the crew chief and her colleagues were ready to take on the challenge.
“In terms of safety, we always thought, ‘We’re just going to find out,'” said Curtin, who pointed out that engineers from Lockheed Martin, the F-35 maker, were also there to lead the way.
One of the biggest differences between the F-35 and older jets is that F-35 maintenance personnel can simply connect a laptop to the jet to test flight controls and other diagnostics.
“This jet actually reports errors and tells you what’s going on,” said Curtin, who is currently assigned to the Vermont Air National Guard’s 158th Fighter Squadron. “It’s not a perfect system. I don’t think there is a perfect system out there. But it can really tell if you have a bad sensor or filter or something.”
One of the advantages of a self-diagnosing jet is that maintenance personnel don’t necessarily have to get their hands dirty trying to figure out what the problem is, which would have been the case with previous jets.
“Ask any crew chief who’s worked on an F-15, an F-16 or an A-10, we’d tell you we don’t get as dirty as we used to on the older planes,” Curtin said . “When these jets broke, they broke badly, but people worked really hard to fix them.”
Part of the reason the older jets break down so badly is simply because they’re so old. It’s like an old car, which may need more maintenance and replacement parts than a car straight off the assembly line, the crew chief explained.
“Right now we just don’t have a lot of breaks with the hydraulic system, the fuel system,” or any other component, Curtin said. “That could happen, you know, in 20 years. But at this point these jets are holding up pretty well.”
What makes the F-35 special isn’t just its young age or the self-diagnostic software: it’s the way all the subsystems communicate with each other via software to improve the jet’s performance. This means that sometimes F-35 maintenance simply updates the software. While systems integration improves aircraft efficiency, it also blurs the lines between maintenance specialties.
“This jet is already like a flying computer and many of the systems are already talking to each other,” Curtin said. “Then why can’t our maintenance workers do more than their training policy tells them to do?”
Curtin was one of the first aviators to participate in the F-35 nose-to-tail program, which teaches maintenance workers essential skills outside of their usual area of expertise. For example, a fuel or avionics expert could learn the basics of how the F-35’s weapon systems work.
“We don’t actually load the ammo, but we can troubleshoot one [weapons] Rack if a bomb didn’t drop or if there’s a problem communicating with the plane,” Curtin explained. “So I’m still an expert in my career as a crew chief, but I’m kind of a jack of all trades in everything else.”
The Master Sergeant particularly enjoys working on the F-35 engine, which she never had the opportunity to do on the F-15. Curtin explained that the new jet’s engine breaks down into five modules, each of which can be replaced if necessary.
“That’s probably my favorite part — working on the engines — where we can actually pull apart and swap out the engine modules,” she said. “When you put it back together and fly the plane, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I put this engine together.'”
Curtin isn’t the only maintenance worker getting to know the F-35 from cover to cover. The aviator said there are about 25 other caregivers in Vermont who are gaining similar skills. The advantage of an Air National Guard unit like Curtin’s is that Air National Guards do not have to rotate to a different duty station every few years like their active-duty counterparts. Instead, aviators can remain at a base and build expertise on the aircraft there. That expertise could pay dividends in a major conflict where the military may have a limited number of seats to send deep in the Pacific or elsewhere.
“If we’re deployed somewhere and we have to fly six jets to Site X for two weeks, we don’t have to bring that many people,” Curtin explained. “We could have a weapons expert trained to launch and recover a jet, change a tire, or perform maintenance.”
Figuring out how to get the job done with fewer people and fewer planes is a big problem for the Air Force. Part of the stumbling block is funding: Air Force senior executives don’t expect the service to grow any time soon, both in terms of crew and a continuing shortage of pilots that is making trained aviators an increasingly scarce one resource power. Staff shortages and a small fleet of aircraft, generally older than the aviators who fly and repair them, means the service aims to provide each aviator and each aircraft with as much operational flexibility as possible.
Sometimes this flexibility takes the form of using B-52 bombers as transports or, conversely, C-17 transports as bomb trucks. But for many hired Airmen, it takes the form of a concept called “multi-skilled Airmen,” meaning the Air Force encourages Airmen to become Swiss Army knives who can work outside of their usual field of work. Though some Airmen have criticized the concept as a fresh coat of paint for the “do more with less” phrase, service leaders say it will be an essential feature in helping Airmen survive future combat.
Multi-capable aviators are a tenet of a broader strategy called agile combat, in which the Air Force seeks to complicate an enemy’s targeting process by operating smaller airfields in the theater of war, in contrast to the sprawling air bases established in the United States and in Iraq and Afghanistan during the global war on terror.
The theory goes that these big bases make juicy all-in-a-basket targets for enemies in a future fight. Instead, the Air Force hopes to deploy smaller, more dispersed airfields so that the operation as a whole can continue if one airfield is destroyed. All of this means that the training of the multi-role maintenance aviators at the Vermont Air National Guard aligns squarely with the preparations of the larger Air Force for future combat.
“I would say a multifunctional aviator could probably do the work of at least three people,” Curtin said.
The Vermont Air Guards tested the concept this summer when 35 Airmen from the 158th Fighter Squadron were dispatched from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, to Amari Air Base, Estonia, to see if they could operate with a smaller footprint than usual. The airmen completed 28 sorties and 76 flight hours, which was a success, according to a press release about the exercise.
“The Proof of Concept was effective in demonstrating to NATO partners that the USAF had the ability to rapidly deploy to allied nations and deploy 5th Generation fighter jets to non-USAF locations,” said Tech. Sergeant Justin Oddy, airfield manager for the 158th Operations Support Squadron, said at the time. “That [agile combat employment] The concept spans the entire Air Force mission and when it comes to mission generation, this small task force has shown how effective the concept is and will continue to be with Allied support.”
The operation might not have been as successful without Curtin, who over the years has become a mentor to younger caregivers in her unit. Now that she’s in a leadership/supervisory role, the crew chief doesn’t get as much time working on the F-35 as she once did, but helping other aviators brings its own rewards.
“I can’t play with the jet as much as I’d like, but it’s great to see my flyers grow into who I am as an expert,” Curtin said. “Knowing that I’ve helped train them to be the best caregivers they can be … it makes me really proud to be a crew chief in the Air Force.”
Not only jets need support, but also people. Curtin was grateful for the support of her parents, sisters, and her partner, David Cruson, a co-supervisor with eight years on the F-35 and ten years on the F-15.
“They were my biggest cheerleaders and I couldn’t thank them enough,” she said.