Master Sgt. Leah Curtin had four years of experience fixing F-15 fighter jets when she showed up to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona in 2014 to learn how to fix the much newer F-35 Lightning II. Despite her experience on the older jet, Curtin and her fellow maintainers soon realized that the F-35 is a different sort of beast.
“We were kind of trying to figure out how to maintain this brand new aircraft that is so different from legacy” aircraft, such as 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 how to fix was not just a new platform to master — it was a new kind of maintenance that could have an impact on how the Air Force fights a possible war against China or other distant foes.
“We’ve had multiple units doing some really good things on how to take small teams and move forward,” as in closer to the fight, Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, director of the Air National Guard, told reporters in September at the Air & Space Forces Association’s Air Space & Cyber Conference at National Harbor, Maryland. Loh pointed out Curtin, who can perform multiple maintenance specialties on the F-35.
“Now think about that. You’re only trained to be a crew chief or trained to be avionics or hydraulics or engines. She actually took the time to learn four specialties,” Loh said.
Back in 2014, Curtin was still learning the ropes of the F-35. Fighter aircraft are complicated machines, and mastering how to fix them takes time for both individual airmen and for maintenance squadrons. Curtin and her colleagues had to start building that knowledge base from the ground up.
“It was definitely a learning curve,” said the crew chief, who noted that the F-35 had its first flight in 2006 and arrived at its first base in 2011. It was practically an infant compared to the F-15s Curtin was used to, which first entered service in 1976. But the crew chief and her colleagues were ready to take on the challenge.
“With safety in mind, we were always like, ‘we’ll just figure it out,’” said Curtin, who pointed out that engineers from Lockheed Martin, the F-35 manufacturer, were also there to guide the way.
One of the biggest differences between the F-35 and older jets is that F-35 maintainers can simply hook a laptop up to the jet to test out its flight controls and other diagnostics.
“This jet actually reports faults, and it tells you what’s wrong,” said Curtin, who is currently assigned to the Vermont Air National Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing. “It’s not a perfect system. I don’t think there’s any perfect system out there. But it really can pinpoint if you have a bad sensor or bad filter or anything like that.”
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One of the perks of a self-diagnosing jet is that it means maintainers do not necessarily have to get their hands dirty to find out what the problem is, which they might do with previous jets.
“Ask any crew chief who worked on an F-15 or an F-16 or an A-10, we would tell you that we don’t get as dirty as we used to on the older aircraft,” Curtin said. “When those jets broke, they broke hard, but people worked really hard to fix them.”
Part of the reason the older jets break so hard is simply that they are so old. It is similar to an old car, which might require more tender loving care 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, fuel system,” or other components, Curtin said. “That could happen, you know, 20 years down the road. But at this point, these jets are already lasting pretty well.”
What makes the F-35 special is not just its young age or self-diagnosing software: it’s how all the subsystems talk with each other through software to improve the jet’s performance. That means sometimes F-35 maintenance involves simply updating the software. While the system integration improves the aircraft’s efficiency, it also blurs the lines between maintenance specialties.
“This jet is already like a flying computer and a lot of the systems already talk to each other,” Curtin said. “So why can’t our maintainers be able to do more than just what their training guideline is telling them to do?”
Curtin became one of the first airmen to participate in the F-35 nose-to-tail program, where maintainers pick up basic skills from outside their usual specialty. For example a fuels or avionics expert might learn the basics of how the F-35’s weapons systems work.
“We don’t actually load the munition, but we’re able to do troubleshooting on a [weapons] rack if a bomb did not drop or if it is having an issue communicating with the aircraft,” Curtin explained. “So I’m still an expert in my crew chief career field, but I’m kind of like a jack of all trades in everything else.”
The master sergeant particularly enjoys working on the F-35 engine, which she never had a chance 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 — is working on the engines — where we can actually pull the engine modules apart and replace them,” she said. “When you put it back together and the aircraft flies you’re like ‘yeah, I put that motor together.’”
Curtin is not the only maintainer getting to know the F-35 from nose to tail. The airman said there are about 25 other maintainers picking up similar skills in Vermont. The advantage of an Air National Guard unit like Curtin’s is that air national guardsmen do not have to rotate to another duty location every few years like their active-duty counterparts. Instead, airmen can stay at one base and build up expertise on the aircraft there. That expertise could pay off in a major conflict where the military may have a limited number of seats to send deep into the Pacific or elsewhere.
“When we are deployed somewhere and we have to go to X location for two weeks with six jets, we don’t have to bring such a huge amount of people,” Curtin explained. “We could have a weapons expert who has been trained to launch and recover a jet, or change a tire, or do some servicing.”
Figuring out how to get the job done with fewer people and aircraft is a major problem for the Air Force. Part of the impetus is funding: Air Force senior leaders do not expect the service to grow any time soon, both in terms of its enlisted force and in terms of an ongoing pilot shortage that makes trained aviators an increasingly scarce resource. The manpower shortage, plus a small fleet of aircraft that is generally older than the airmen flying and fixing them, means the service wants to pack each airman and aircraft with as much operational flexibility as possible.
Sometimes that flexibility takes the form of using B-52 bombers as transport aircraft or, vice versa, using C-17 transport aircraft as bomb trucks. But for many enlisted airmen, it takes the form of a concept called “multi-capable airmen,” which means the Air Force is encouraging airmen to become Swiss Army knives who can work outside their usual job specialty. Though some airmen have criticized the concept as being a fresh coat of paint on the phrase “do more with less,” service leaders say it will be an essential trait to help airmen survive a future fight.
Multi-capable airmen is one tenet of a larger strategy called agile combat employment, where the Air Force wants to complicate an enemy’s targeting process by operating smaller airfields across the theater of war, in contrast to the sprawling air bases built up in the United States and in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Global War on Terror.
The theory is that those large bases present juicy, all-eggs-in-one-basket targets for enemies in a future fight. Instead, the Air Force hopes to deploy smaller, more distributed airfields so that if any one airfield were destroyed, the operation as a whole could keep running. All of which is to say that the multirole maintenance airmen training at the Vermont Air National Guard are right in line with the larger Air Force’s preparations for a future fight.
“I would say one multi-capable airman could probably do the job of at least three people,” Curtin said.
The Vermont air guardsmen tested out the concept this summer, when 35 airmen from the 158th Fighter Wing deployed 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 flying hours, which was a success according to a press release about the exercise.
“The proof of concept was effective at showing NATO partners that the USAF was able to rapidly deploy to allied nations and perform 5th-generation fighter aircraft operations at non-USAF locations,” Tech. Sgt. Justin Oddy, 158th Operations Support Squadron airfield manager, said at the time. “The [agile combat employment] concept spans across the entire Air Force mission and when it comes to sortie generation, this small task force showed just how effective the concept is and will continue to be with allied support.”
The operation may not have been so successful without Curtin, who over the years has become a mentor for younger maintainers in her unit. Now that she is in a leadership/supervisor role, the crew chief does not get as much time working on the F-35 as she used to, but helping other airmen provides its own rewards.
“I don’t get to play with the jet as much as I would like, but being able to watch my airmen grow into who I was as an expert is awesome to see,” Curtin said “Knowing that I helped train them to be the best maintainers that they can be … it just makes me really proud to be a crew chief in the Air Force.”
Jets are not the only things that need support: people do too. Curtin was thankful for her parents, sisters and her partner, David Cruson, a fellow maintainer with eight years of experience on the F-35 and 10 on the F-15, for their support.
“They have been my biggest cheerleaders and I couldn’t thank them enough,” she said.
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