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Unique F-35A program, maintainers progress during Red Flag 20-1

Photo of F-35A maintenance Airmen on the Nellis AFB flight line during Red Flag 20-1.

Maintainers with the 421st Aircraft Maintenance Unit leave the ramp after launching F-35A Lightning II fighter jets during Red Flag 20-1 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Feb. 3, 2020. The 421st maintainers are part of the Lightning Technician Program and are working to be fully qualified in a number of different F-35A maintenance areas. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNS) -- Hundreds of Airmen from Hill’s 388th and 419th Fighter Wing are deployed here with the 421st Fighter Squadron for Red Flag, the Air Force’s premier large force combat exercise. 

This is the first Red Flag for the 421st Fighter Squadron as an F-35A Lightning II unit. They received their final aircraft in December 2019. It's also the first Red Flag for an operational aircraft maintenance unit made up entirely of Airmen in the Lightning Technician Program.

For the younger Airmen in the 421st Aircraft Maintenance Unit, this Red Flag means valuable experience launching, recovering, inspecting and servicing the F-35A  as they progress in their training to become the first operational unit of fully qualified Blended Operational Lightning Technicians.

“While we’re here, we’re really working hard to get our inexperienced Airmen more time-on-task and exposure to different elements of maintaining the aircraft,” said Col. Michael Miles, 388th Maintenance Group commander.

The BOLT career paths are part of what has become known in the Air Force as the Lightning Technician Program. The goal of the program is to reduce the time and manpower required to maintain each jet by fully-qualifying Airmen in a number of different maintenance areas, instead of just one. A smaller force means more combat flexibility.

The program combines maintenance-specific Air Force specialty codes, essentially job descriptions, into two career tracks. Maintainers in the air vehicle track are crew chiefs, fuels and low observable technicians. Airmen in the mission systems track focus on avionics, weapons and egress.

“In order to maximize training value, during this Red Flag, we have small teams assigned to each aircraft, and the teams are made up of a mixture of different career fields and levels of experience,” Miles said.

For newer maintainers, like Airman 1st Class Caleb Ivey, from LaFollette, Tennessee, Red Flag is an opportunity to continue to expand his skill as an LTP maintainer without normal, day-to-day, home-station distractions.

“It’s challenging for sure, but nothing we can’t handle, and the more experience you have in different areas of maintenance, the better off you’re going to be in your career going forward,” Ivey said. “At Red Flag, we can all focus on the mission, and being away from home brings us all closer together.”

During this Red Flag the jets are required to perform at a “high level” and maintainers have been able to meet the operational demands that has been asked of them, Miles said.

“I think the 388th Fighter Wing has already made the case for our operational and maintenance capabilities during two combat deployments, previous Red Flags and theater security packages. This is ‘ops normal’ for us,” Miles said. “Now we’re focusing in fine tuning and really pushing the program with things like the Lightning Technician Program and getting our Airmen experience so they learn to trust the weapon system, which will improve overall performance even more.”

But, sometimes the high performance rate of the jets can actually be a hindrance to training when away from home station, Miles said. Airmen here will get a lot of “reps” launching and recovering jets, but not so much time working on what may be a challenging maintenance issue.

“With LTP maintainers, our training burden is much higher,” Miles said. “So, when we have a jet that breaks here, we see it as a great training opportunity. We’ll continue this approach as long as we don’t get behind the power curve, to the point where we can’t support flying operations, and we haven’t come close to that and never will with the high caliber Airmen in the unit.”

The active duty 388th FW and Air Force Reserve 419th FW  are the Air Force's first combat-capable F-35A units. They fly and maintain the jet in a Total Force partnership, which capitalizes on the strength of both components. 

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