When Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147 wrapped up its 2017 combat deployment aboard USS Nimitz (CVN 68), the “Argonauts” knew they were rolling right into the task of transitioning from their battle-tested F/A-18E Super Hornets to the Navy’s new strike fighter, the F-35C Lightning II.
During their seven-month deployment, the Argonauts flew almost 3,300 hours as part of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 11, with nearly 2,200 of those hours in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.
An average week for the squadron meant roughly six aircraft launches on six-hour-minimum missions, six days a week for more than three consecutive months. Thoroughly engaged in completing their F/A-18E combat operations, the Argonauts could not shift their focus to the F-35C until they had departed 5th Fleet.
The Navy chose VFA-147 as the first operational F-35C squadron because of its projected operations with regard to deployments, maintenance and existing Super Hornet assets. Their transition to the F-35C actually began toward the end of their time aboard Nimitz, with some Sailors leaving the ship early to begin maintenance training at the Academic Training Center (ATC) at Eglin Air Force Base (AFB), Florida.
Upon the squadron’s return to Naval Air Station (NAS) Lemoore, California, in December 2017, the Argonauts began a full-speed transition to the Lightning II. Within a week, they had begun the roughly 10-month process of distributing their 12 single-seat Super Hornets to the fleet, with students arriving in classrooms beginning in the first week of January.
“Since we returned from deployment in December 2017, our team has been driving toward fully bringing this platform online for the Navy,” VFA-147 Commanding Officer Cmdr. Patrick Corrigan said. “During the first few months of transition at the beginning of 2018, we were really a dual-hatted squadron. We had Sailors and pilots going between Lemoore and Eglin, training on the F-35C while still maintaining F/A-18E qualifications. Senior leadership, LPOs and first-class petty officers were in school as soon as possible to get necessary F-35C qualifications, leaving junior Sailors to manage the transfer of the Super Hornets to the other commands. It was a demanding scenario for every member of our team.”
Pilots began ground school in the spring of 2018 as the pool of F-35C maintainers and aircraft continued to increase. Meanwhile, as the number of Super Hornet maintainers diminished faster than the number of aircraft on the books, workdays lengthened to meet maintenance requirements.
While Sailors were continuing to cycle through the ATC, the last F/A-18E transferred from VFA-147 in April 2018, the same month Argonaut pilots began flying the F-35C. Up to that point, aircrew had been training in one of four state-of-the-art simulators at the Pilot Training Center at NAS Lemoore, where they were exposed to and rehearsed every conceivable situation from basic take-offs and landings to minor emergency procedures and worst-case scenarios.
Aircrew were also fit for gear at the Pilot Fit Facility (PFF) at Eglin AFB. Several F-35C facilities have since opened at NAS Lemoore, including a PFF, a centralized engine repair facility and the remodeled Hangar 5, which houses VFA-147 as well as VFA-125, which was reactivated in January 2017 as the F-35C fleet replacement squadron. Sailors will continue receiving F-35C maintenance training and instruction at the ATC at Eglin AFB, as there is no plan to build one at NAS Lemoore.
Once the last Super Hornet left the squadron, the Argonauts could focus on the final step in their transition to the F-35C—achieving its Safe-For-Flight Operations Certification (SFFOC), which ensures the squadron has enough qualified personnel to implement maintenance and safety programs in support of fleet operations. All transitioning squadrons are required to complete a SFFOC prior to independently conducting flight operations.
Encompassing areas such as equipment, personnel and programs, the SFFOC requires a squadron to be in physical custody of at least 30 percent of its assigned aircraft. With regard to the F-35C, other requirements include the installation and operation of management information systems such as the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) and its accompanying support networks. There is also a requirement for operational F-35C squadrons to maintain robust, on-track maintenance programs, as well as complete various inspections ranging from weapons to safety. Aircrew complete a transition flight syllabus and maintain certain proficiencies in accordance with Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures and Standardization.
The Argonauts earned their SFFOC in December 2018, leading to the Navy’s declaration of initial operating capability for the F-35C on Feb. 28.
“The Argonauts safe-for-flight operations certification was earned through the herculean effort of squadron Sailors and is an acknowledgement that they have developed the skills to safely maintain and operate the F-35C Lightning II,” Joint Strike Fighter Wing Commander Capt. Max McCoy said at the time. “This aircraft is a key component to maintaining the U.S. Navy’s dominance anywhere in the world.”
Pilots transitioning from the Super Hornet to the F-35C remark that the Lightning II still “flies like a fighter.”
“We were told that this jet handles like a Super Hornet with a lot more bells and whistles,” VFA-147 Maintenance Officer Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Bock said. “Having flown both the F/A-18E and the F-35C, I would agree with that statement. The Lightning II has a lot of acceleration, flies very well at high altitudes, rolls quickly and performs better than the Super Hornet and [legacy] F/A-18C.”
However, the process for executing maintenance on the F-35C is indeed generations apart from its Super Hornet predecessor.
“The most significant shift in mindset is the way we do maintenance for the F-35C,” Corrigan said. “The way we were conducting maintenance before, the quick ‘remove-and-replace to see if it works, and if it doesn’t we have to change the part again’ mindset had to change. While that thought process isn’t wrong, it just isn’t a fit for the F-35C. Now, when we go into a panel, we are confident that we have the right part on station and that it works and is good to go. We are definitely armed with more information about the jet, both historical and real-time, when we approach maintenance issues.”
“When getting our maintenance team fully-trained on the F-35C, the biggest challenge was to not only make sure we had received the proper training but also to readjust our perspective on maintenance practices,” said Aviation Electronics Technician (AT) 2nd Class Antonio Sanchez. “We were able to work side-by-side with VFA-125 for our hands-on training. They were there to teach as well as refine the skills we had already learned with the new aircraft and to help us shift our maintenance mindset by taking a more deliberate approach, and completing every step as prescribed.”
Learning a new aircraft also meant a new set of terminology.
“In maintenance, you are flushing all the acronyms of the old platform and picking up the new ones as fast as you can,” AT2 Hugh Rosie said. “Although the systems are similar, the day-to-day procedure goes by a different name under the new maintenance infrastructure.
“It’s a huge point of pride to think that what we do every day will shape Naval Aviation for the next 50 years. As we continue to work through these processes and get to answers on quick and efficient ways to resolve an issue, it will make the process easier for the squadrons transitioning behind us.”
From Commander, Joint Strike Fighter Wing Public Affairs.