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Maintainers ensure F-35A stays safe ... (and stealthy)

An Airman preps material for work on an F-35A canopy.

Senior Airman Matthew Corcoran with the 388th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Egress Flight prepares canopy egress components for installation at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, on Nov. 12, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

An Airman works on an F-35A canopy.

Tech. Sgt. Nicholas Westover with the 419th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Egress Flight works on an F-35A canopy at Hill Air Force Base, Utah on Nov. 12, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

A photo of Airmen servicing F-35A ejection seat

Senior Airman Sergio Espinoza and Senior Airman Savaughn Henderson, 388th Maintenance Squadron, prepares to service an ejection seat removed from the cockpit of an F-35A Lightning II fighter jet, Sept 26, 2019, Hill Air Force Base, Utah. (U.S. Air Force photo by Todd Cromar)

A photo of Airmen working on an F-35A canopy.

Airman 1st Class Sheldon Cooper, left, and Staff Sgt. Mason Tidwell, 56th Component Maintenance Squadron, Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, work on an F-35A canopy at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Nov. 12, 2019. The Airmen are TDY to Hill to help with the shops workload. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

An Airman works on an F-35A canopy.

Tech. Sgt. Nicholas Westover with the 419th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Egress Flight works on an F-35A canopy at Hill Air Force Base, Utah on Nov. 12, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – If every other system on a fighter aircraft fails, there’s one that has to work. The ejection system.

No one likes talking about it, but it’s a fact of aviation, and the Airmen responsible for maintaining that system on the F-35A Lightning II take their jobs very seriously.

Maintainers are notorious for paying “close attention to detail.” But in the 388th Maintenance Squadron’s Egress shop, that particular trait can be seen on “another level,” said Senior Master Sgt. Richard Moloney, 388th Maintenance Squadron Accessories Flight chief.

“When you do maintenance on an engine, you can fire it up and see if it’s working properly. But, you can’t just fire off an ejection seat,” he said. “There’s no cross check. You’ve just got to trust the tech data and training and be meticulous. These guys have 150 tasks they have to be proficient in and they have to do them all precisely.”

In addition to their training, and regular inspections on the fleet, recently they have been focused on removing F-35A canopies and installing replacement canopies.

The F-35A’s canopy, the stretched acrylic bubble that tops the cockpit, is unique. There is a thin layer of transparent radar absorbent material that coats the outside. It helps keep the jet hidden from enemy radar.

In some production batches of the jet’s canopy, that layer began to degrade, peel and separate, causing a radar vulnerability. These canopies needed to be replaced to preserve stealth and keep the jets fully mission-capable. As the F-35A enterprise worked on generating new canopies, Airmen at Hill learned and perfected the process of removing and replacing the unique canopy system.   

Unlike legacy canopies that are jettisoned off the aircraft in the beginning on the ejection sequence, the F-35 canopy is blown upwards and apart by small, carefully placed lines of explosives, split seconds before the seat launches up and away.

Each one of these lines needs to be installed by hand, and several other components need to be swapped from the old canopy to the new canopy. It’s a job that takes nearly a hundred man-hours.

This year, the egress shop has readied and installed dozens of new canopies on the wing’s fleet of F-35As, making them fully capable of performing stealth missions, which is a key requirement for the fifth-generation aircraft.

“I am incredibly proud of these Airman, unlike other shops, Egress only has about 20 Airman to focus on the maintenance of the ejection system, for all of our aircraft and they took this replacement task head-on” said Lt. Col. Megan Murtishaw, 388th Maintenance Squadron commander.  “They go on every TDY, every deployment, while running home station operations. They are the last line of defense to ensure all of our pilots’ safety and they take that very seriously.”

Between the re-installations, the TDYs, the deployments, and the daily workload, the shop has been temporarily relying on outside help from other F-35A egress units. The shop has also relied on the stability of Air Reserve Technicians to retain experienced maintainers and help meet the high operations tempo, said Moloney. The 388th FW and 419th FWs fly and maintain the F-35A in a Total Force partnership, which capitalizes on the strength of both components.

Air Reserve Technicians from the 419th Fighter Wing work side-by-side with active duty Airmen. They work in the shop as civilians during the week and fulfill their Reserve duties during drill weekends and annual tour. They rarely, if ever, change duty stations. 

Tech Sgt. Nicholas Westover, an ART with the 419th Maintenance Squadron, has a lot of experience to share. Prior to coming to Hill AFB, he was active duty and has worked on the F-35A program for years. He was part of the team at Edwards AFB, California, who initially verified the joint technical data for the F-35’s egress system, which all the maintainers now use.

“I really like it here, I like the job and I like the people,” Westover said. “I know what we’re doing is important to the mission.”