F-35 maintenance

Staff Sgt. Matthew Peterson, 388th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, prepares to launch an F-35A Lightning II during an F-35 Crew Chief Upgrade training course at Hill Air Force Base on Aug. 21, 2020.

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — The Air Force is hoping a new program being developed at Hill Air Force Base will help speed soon-to-be F-35 maintainers into the workforce.

The Air Force had battled an agencywide shortage of aircraft maintainers for nearly four years, from 2015 to late 2018. The numbers were so low that when Hill began receiving its first F-35s in September 2015, the active-duty maintenance unit for the new jets had to be supplemented by reserve airmen from the 419th Fighter Wing.

The military branch began stepping up recruitment efforts and now has the desired amount of bodies, but the maintainer workforce now trends younger.

“We do have some younger airmen coming through now,” said Micah Garbarino, spokesperson for Hill’s 388th Fighter Wing.

As a result, Garbarino said, the large amount of training required of new maintenance workers coming through the pipeline has created a “bottleneck” for incoming maintainers, including at Hill. Intensifying the situation, F-35 maintainers once transitioned from technical training directly to another training program at Luke AFB, Arizona, or Eglin AFB, Florida, where they would get more hands-on training before arriving at their duty station. But the Air Force recently decided to shift the responsibility for that training to the units at the airman’s first duty station.

“When (maintainers) get here from tech school, they’ve never really handled a live aircraft,” said Chief Master Sgt. Ben Carson, 388th Maintenance Group chief enlisted manager. “It can be like drinking from a fire hose for them — a lot of tech orders, a lot of theory, a lot of safety training, but not a lot of practice.”

Garbarino says crew chiefs recently assigned to the F-35 now have direct access to a new professional development course at Hill, an effort that may be the solution to the training logjam the Air Force is looking for.

The first class of airmen from the course graduated last week. Garbarino said the three-week course is centered around the question of “what do we actually need these young airmen to grasp to do this job more quickly and safely?”

The course trains and certifies incoming airmen on more than 80 essential tasks associated with their job. A maintainer’s job includes everything from taking care of aircraft landing gear and engines, swapping tires, performing inspections, launching and recovering aircraft, and more.

Technical Sgt. Julian Leija, an instructor in the program and former F-35 crew chief, said the program supplements technical data with insight from experienced maintainers already on the ground at Hill.

“We’re able to supplement and describe for them why things are important and what they need to do to complete a task,” Leija said. “We’re able to do this without distractions, slow down the process, instead of having to do it while we’re trying to launch real-world sorties or get a jet ‘greened-up.’”

During the course, participants are trained on tasks and their training records are certified at the same time, putting them in rotation sooner, Garbarino said, helping to save up to five months of additional training time.

“Since we can sign them off on these tasks, if they graduate on a Friday, they can turn right around on Monday and be on the flight line doing their actual job, instead of showing up brand new and waiting to get signed off on things when a trainer has time,” Leija said.

Garbarino said the course has been authorized by Air Education and Training Command to be implemented at F-35 maintenance units across the Air Force.

The 388th FW is the Air Force’s first combat-ready F-35 wing and it declared “full warfighting capability” in January.

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