An Update on F-35 Maintenance: The Perspective from the USS WASP and From MCAS Beaufort and Yuma


2015-06-22 By Robbin Laird

During a visit to MCAS Yuma in 2012, I met with many Marines and others involved in the standup of the F-35 at that base.

During the visit, in a meeting with maintainers, the early process of standing up the aircraft and maintaining it was discussed.

One of the maintainers who was 28 argued that the new ALIS system was not all he hoped it would be.

He was asked the following: “What did you maintain before?  F-18s was the response.  How did ALIS work on F-18s?  He paused and then said, “Good point; we are not where we want to be put we are on the path.”

The F-35 as a combat air system is considerably better than the legacy aircraft it is “replacing.”

This point was already made in 2012 by Lt. Col. Bachmann, who is now the CO of the Warlords at Beaufort.

In an interview conducted just after he flew the 200th sortie of the F-35 on August 24, 2012, Bachmann underscored the following:

Question: You have been with the program for a while.

Bachmann: Yes I have.  I have been with the program since 2006.  And I have been here at Elgin for two and half years.  Prior to that I have been a Harrier pilot and have done a stint as a forward air controller.

Question: How would describe the current learning process at Eglin with regard to the plane?

OD Bachmann after 200th F-35 Sortie in August 2012.  The plane has more than 500 sorties as of November 2012.  Credit Photo: SLD
OD Bachmann after 200th F-35 Sortie in August 2012. The plane has more than 500 sorties as of November 2012. Credit Photo: SLD

Bachmann: I would emphasize the role of the maintenance officers. 

These guys are on the cusp of getting their MOSs or Military Occupational Skills.  Their jobs as avionics, or engine or power line maintainers mean’s they have gone to skill and are getting certified.

They have got airplanes to work on, and are getting ready to go to Yuma and stand up the first squadron there.  Their ability to go to school, work on the airplanes, fix them when they come back from flights, and then we fly them again is absolutely fantastic for the program.

The maintainer cadre is what will cause the F-35B to succeed in the USMC.  It is wickedly important. 

The new Yuma squadron cannot survive without its core maintainers and it is really important that we get the training right.

A key transition point for the Marines was when they began to own their own maintenance processes.

This meant that the aircraft became “normalized” within the evolving USMC approach to the air system.

As a maintainer put it during a later visit to YUMA to the Green Knights:

MFA-121 is the first F-35 squadron and the first with organic maintenance.

A squadron with organic maintenance simply means that the Marines are manning the maintenance squadron with inputs from technical representatives, but because it is the first operational squadron obviously the Marines need to prepare for overseas deployment and to prepare to support the aircraft in forward positions…..

We had a chance to discuss the progress with a powertrain maintainer on the F-35 working at VMFA-121. Staff Sargent Jason Lunion has been a maintainer since 1999 and his first squadron CO (for VMFA-223) was Lt. General Davis who is now the Deputy Commandant of Aviation.

He most immediately comes from working on engines with the Harrier but has wide range of experience, as one would expect for members of the first squadron with organic maintenance for the USMC in supporting the F-35.

The F-35 is the first low observable aircraft to be operated by the maritime services, and requires some changes in how the maintainers support the aircraft, and notably at sea.  

The discussion with the Staff Sargent highlighted that the low observable qualities of the aircraft created some specific challenges, and one of those, which he mentioned, was working on the panels.

Staff Sgt. with VMFA-121. VMFA-12 is the first F-35 squadron doing its organic maintenance. Credit: SLD
Staff Sgt. with VMFA-121. VMFA-12 is the first F-35 squadron doing its organic maintenance. Credit: SLD

The panels on the aircraft provide easy access for a number of maintenance functions, but as he described it one change is the impact on the T-handles, which open the panels.

“The panel is opened numerous times a day and we are wearing down T-handles that provide access to the panel and wearing down the fasteners themselves.”

He was asked about the general shift from legacy to LO maintenance and highlighted that the Marines have not operated an LO aircraft before so there is a learning curve.

“There is a drastic increase in awareness when you are working around the aircraft.”

A key aspect of the aircraft is the use of computer aided maintenance and sensor-informed systems. The Staff Sargent focused on how the sensor-enabled aircraft was also a work in progress much has one has seen with new commercial aircraft which rely heavily on sensors to provide data about performance and maintenance demands.

“When a sensor indicates a problem, is it the sensor or is a real problem?”

He also added that “because of all these sensors, and all these little gadgets on the motor that are supposed to eventually take this to a on-condition inspection basis, until their maturity’s reached, we’re going to continue to have a lot of fine tuning to do.”

He noted that compared to the Harrier working on the F-35 engine was much easier.

“With regard to the Harrier, you have to remove the wing and then crane the engine out.  That is clearly not very maintainer friendly, but the F-18 is a different case where removal of the engine is straightforward.”

When asked about his overall experience, he emphasized that some aspects were welcome additions, and others were a work in progress.

The impact of organic maintenance and Marine Corps ownership of the aircraft was highlighted by Lt. Col. Bachmann when interviewed recently at Beaufort, SC.

Coming to Beaufort has been crucial to moving the ball forward with regard to IOC. 

We have been able to operate the aircraft with Marine Corps maintainers and to integrate the plane into our approach to maintenance and operations.

The readiness of our airplanes to fly on the ramp increased by almost 30% the day we fully go here at Beaufort.

Being on an all-Marine base has increased our readiness.

The recent operational trials aboard the USS WASP provided a real test of ability of maintainers to support six aircraft (which would be a normal load aboard a ship the size of the WASP) at sea.

And the findings from interviews aboard WASP were very clear: it is very supportable at sea, as well on land.

An interview with young Marine Corps maintainer aboard the ship from Beaufort highlighted what he saw as an advantage.

This F-18 maintainer – now F-35 maintainer – had NEVER maintained an aircraft aboard a ship before.

How did it go?

“It was easier onboard than onshore.

We had less space; we had to be better organized; and the electronic systems aboard the aircraft simplified the process.”

A visit to the training squadron May 19, 2015 as well as to the USS WASP the following week drove home a core point – the Brits and Marines are working closely together to stand up their separate but coordinated capabilities associated with an F-35 enabled 21st century combat force.

The F-35 global enterprise is a key enabler of the use of collaborative resources.

The Brits are training at Beaufort on F-35 equipment at the base – including the simulators – as there own systems are stood up in the UK and the squadron to the UK to get ready to work with the HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Squadron Leader Nichol at Beaufort MCAS standing in front of an RAF F-35 jet which is part of the training effort. Credit: Second Line of Defense
Squadron Leader Nichol at Beaufort MCAS standing in front of an RAF F-35 jet which is part of the training effort. Credit: Second Line of Defense

The Brits are integrated members of the squadron and the Marine Corps and British maintainers are learning together how to adapt their specific protocols – which are different – to a common airplane.

Obviously, this will play real dividends down the road in terms of being to cross deploy at sea.

Squadron Leader Hugh Nichols from the Royal Air Force, who is the national representative of the UK at Beaufort and a squadron instructor, was asked what is the advantage of being here working with the Marines?

Sqn. LDF Hugh Nichols: There are many, but let us start with their sense of urgency. 

They are taking IOC very seriously. 

The Marines have this thing by the scruff of the neck and they are running with it. 

They are Marines, and if anything gets in the way, they deal with it. 

Working with them will clearly ensure that we are ready for the Queen Elizabeth. 

And the comingling of our squadron with the Marine Corps squadron is important in terms of cross learning. 

Our young maintainers are working with Marine Corps maintainers and they are learning to work through different procedures and protocols to learn how to maintain a common airplane.

Question: Obviously, this will yield operational advantages later as Marines fly onto your ships and vice versa.  How do you see this?

Sqn. LDF Hugh Nichols: Obviously, deciding to do that is above my pay grade, but clearly you are right, we have cross operated in the past and shaping commonalities from the outset will help us to so in the future.

The Marines could fly jets off of the Queen Elizabeth and we off the Wasp or other ships F-35B enabled in the future.

And aboard the USS WASP during the operational trials, a major part of the effort was upon sustainability at sea.

Put bluntly: Maintenance was not a background factor but a crucial factor shaping the way ahead on the IOC of the aircraft from the Navy-Marine Corps point of view.

The Marines identified the major objectives for OT-1 as follows and logs and sustainment were among the most salient:

OT-I objectives include:

  • Test and assessment of day and night flight operations;
  • Day and night extended range operations;
  • Block 2B software configuration;
  • Aircraft-to-ship network communications interoperability;
  • Efficacy of the F-35B landing signals officer’s launch and recovery software;
  • The crew’s ability to conduct scheduled and unscheduled maintenance activities;
  • The suitability of F-35B maintenance support equipment for shipboard operations;
  • The logistics footprint of a six-plane F-35B detachment;
  • Day and night weapons loading;
  • And all aspects of the logistics and sustainment support of the F-35B while deployed at sea.

Data and lessons learned will lay the groundwork for F-35B deployments aboard U.S. Navy amphibious carriers following the Marine Corps’ F-35B initial operating capability (IOC) declaration in July 2015.

Captain Smith, the Executive Officer of the USS WASP, also underscored the centrality of the operational testing of the maintenance systems.

The idea was to take six aircraft, which is the same size as the Marine expeditionary unit, which would be a normally deployed six-plane  detachment, which is part of that rotation, and take them out here and exercise them aboard the ship.

We can then learn how to make this aircraft function as a normal deployed aircraft outside of the normal test, developmental test environment. Our primary focus here has been upon supportability. That was one of our major emphases.

If you look at what General Davis and his team put together as priorities for what they wanted us to look at while we’re out here, the vast majority of those were focused on supportability.

LT CDR Kitchen together along with the other maintenance officers, put together an extensive list of items that we wanted to make sure that were functional at sea. That goes from the mundane like changing a tire to the complex, like changing an engine.

Doing those evolutions at sea is a different animal. You’ve got chains, you’ve got deck motion, you’ve got all those space constraints that you saw down in the hangar deck that you don’t have ashore.

We want to make sure that any differences that we saw from support ashore to afloat were properly documented and we make those changes with the ultimate goal of making the deployment for the very first squadron that’s going to go to sea as easy as possible

The mix of maintainers who came aboard the ship – many for the first time aboard a ship to do maintenance – and were able to execute the maintenance mission is a testament to the maturity of the system.

4 members of the panel aboard the USS WASP. Credit: Second Line of Defense
4 members of the panel aboard the USS WASP. Credit: Second Line of Defense

According to Major Richard Rusnok, USMC, VMX-22 F-35B Det Officer-in-Charge, F-35 Detachment, Edwards AFB and the lead planner for OT-1:

The maintenance aboard the ship is a 100% Marine-lead effort. We have 91 maintainers on board, 91. And that is built off the same number of maintainers we would take with a Harrier detachment. So the numbers are comparable to legacy numbers that we would bring aboard.

We spent a lot of time studying and analyzing bringing which specialties out and we’ve learned some lessons like anyone would learn. Like we wish we could have another Marine here, another Marine there. But as far as numbers, we’re completely comparable with legacy.

And the great part about it is the 91 Marines we’re not just turning airplanes and flying a robust flight schedule. We’re also doing all of these evolutions and all these other demonstrations, validation and verification of brand new procedures that have never been done before.

So, they’re busy. They’re working hard. But they are working hard and having incredible results. As far as keeping up with the daily flight schedule as well as validation and verification of these tasks. That’s probably about it.

There’s three squadrons of maintainers on board from VMX 22, and 121 and 501. So we’ve got three different patches in the maintenance department. And if you can imagine a team coming together for the first time, can be challenging. We have not had any of those kinds of challenges here because of the standardization and the level of training and the level of verification that has already been done on brand new procedures. The Marines have done incredibly.

That’s the best news story of this detachment, is how well the maintenance work has gone thus far. We have extremely high reliability ratings for being in the shipboard environment.

The maintenance team aboard the WASP was a mixed UK and Marine Corps team and indeed, a key role was played by Lt. Cdr. Beth Kitchen, Royal Navy, who was there on behalf of the Royal Navy and as an integrated member of the VFMA-501 squadron from Beaufort.

“I’m the Senior UK Engineering Officer at 501 Squadron at Marine Corps Air Base Beaufort. With the purposes of this detachment, I have been intrinsic to the maintenance organization, coordinating all maintenance resolutions where we’ve identified that there might be differences between how they’re executed on sea and on land.”

3 Members of the Panel aboard the USS WASP. Credit: Second Line of Defense
3 Members of the Panel aboard the USS WASP. Credit: Second Line of Defense

Lt. Cdr. Kitchen described the RN/RAF working relationship with the Marines.

I personally have been here in the States for a year working with the Marine Corps at Marine Corps Air Base Beaufort. Our programs are aligned and they’re working in partnership in order to develop the capability of the 35B.

In terms of this ship deployment, we’ve got other UK maintainers who have been a part of the detachment. We’ve got personnel who are working within the power line with the avionics department as well as any maintenance control.

And they are able to contribute to the maintenance effort in exactly the same way as the Marines are.

They are trained in the same way in the schoolhouse down at Eglin. But the Marines also they are learning to look at how the UK conducts maintenance and how that can possibly be involved in the future.

She then reported on the results aboard the ship.

Because what we’ve actually demonstrated is almost all of the maintenance evolutions that have been attempted we are now confident we can now conduct at sea. There have been lessons identified where some of the equipment doesn’t necessarily interact with the ship’s facilities. But these are all things that can be easily rectified.

For example, we wouldn’t be able to conduct a lift fan movement installation today only because we need an additional shackle that interfaces between the ship’s overhead crane and our lifting equipment. This is a very simple piece of equipment to source and with this detachment it can be resolved.

It’s the same with a number of issues like that.

So, from a program perspective this has been successful. A lot of observations will be sent back to the joint planning office and there are people who will be taking those lessons. I’m not going to be requesting many procedural changes to joint technical documentation.

The tools that maintainers use though, I’ll allow SSG Sullivan to elaborate in a second, all seem to be fit for its purpose. Even things like the automated logistic information system have gone exceptionally well here. We haven’t struggled with connectivity. None of the maintainers have reported that it has been any slower than it is on shore. Which is a huge positive step for us.

Every detachment will have lessons to learn so we can evolve and make everything better and quicker. And those are things that we are going to be taking back.

But the headline news is we are confident that we can maintain these aircraft at sea for periods of time.

She added as well that:

We have gone over and above basic maintenance requirements.

Among those things we have done over an above any basic maintanence requirements include: conducting demonstrations for installation removal of the engine, the lift back, and the integrated compartment, the canopy, and the ejection seat…..

At sea, we obviously have a moving deck. We have looked at how we tie down the aircraft from very calm sea states up to heaviest possible sea states. And these have taken a huge amount of time.

The good news is that we have gone through all of these evolutions, we have identified lessons, and majority evolutions we are confident that we can now conduct at sea.

The real difference between DT2 and DT1 and OT is the fact that this first time that Marines have been responsible for conducting maintenance. So part of that verification was not just ensuring that we ensured that the equipment, the tools, the procedures in the ship environment worked but also that we trained the maintainers correctly.

And that’s why this detachment has been hugely a success not just from a flying perspective but maintenance one as well.


The F-35B Power Module being removed from the Osprey onboard the USS Wasp. Credit: USMC
The F-35B Power Module being removed from the Osprey onboard the USS Wasp. Credit: USMC

And during the OT-1 process, an Osprey delivered the power module for the F-35B engine. 

Lt. Cdr. Kitchen described that effort as follows:

One of the bigger successes of this detachment is actually embarking a power module onto the ship, which is about two thirds of the engine.

It was carried on the MV-22, and that arrived last Wednesday, there was a custom made skid that was designed by Pratt and Whitney and put it into the MV-22, it was then offloaded, and then we’ve been able to put it into the hangar and been able to prove that we can move it from the skid it was designed to put into the aircraft onto either a container or one of the maintenance vans in order to actually conduct the maintenance evolution itself.

That is going to be disembarking tomorrow. That ensures that we can now replenish a spare module at sea.

It’s a huge achievement to be able to demonstrate that.

And reports from the operators aboard the USS WASP were that the ALIS system worked well.

Major Brendan Walsh, USMC, FMFA-121 Operations Officer, Yuma, Arizona noted the following with regard to ALIS performance and the way ahead:

The way developmental tests use ALIS is completely different from the way that the operational squadron use ALIS. So, because those aircraft are very unique compared to the fleet aircraft, they don’t use the standard systems that are here. It’s kind of an apples and oranges comparison in that respect.

We spend a lot of time trying to risk reduce coming out here for the ship and transfer. That was a major portion of our planning to make sure that went very smoothly, and as we’ve already stated it did go incredibly smoothly.

As far as the deployable capability we currently have SOUV 1, that’s Squadron Operating Unit Version 1 onboard and that is permanently installed in racks. We have a special space, and this was provided through NAVSEA, special space for the appropriate security and classification to have it on board. It’s essentially bolted into the space right now.

And then when the SOU Version 2 comes out which is already being delivered to 121 in Yuma, then that will allow us to do one of the unique things with amphibious shipping is our ability to disembark from amphibious shipping once we get in the theater.

Then it’s something that is very unique to this ship into the units that embark with this ship is we don’t necessarily have to stay aboard the ship.

The operational environment, the requirements say go ashore, and base ashore, and base of foreign operating bases.

SOUV 2 will allow us for all intents and purposes, the same hardware is packaged differently and will allow us to take it off and put it in a forward operating base and to operate effectively and efficiently closer to troops away from the sea base we have currently.

Progress has clearly been made to date with regard to F-35 maintenance and a solid foundation is being laid for the US and its partners to sort out an effective path ahead.

As Lt. Cdr. Kitchen put it clearly:

The F-35 can be surrounded by myth and legend.

But it is a real testimony to the capabilities of the maintainers of the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the USMC to adapt to the new technological challenges.

Their knowledge of aircraft systems is now being applied to a new air system and taking steps forward into the unknown.

It is a testament to the professionalism of these maintainers that they are just getting on with the job of making this aircraft work.

Every single person involved in this detachment are passionate about this aircraft and not just because it is a sexy looking aircraft but want to see it working in every operational environment.