MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. –
As the number of operational F-35 Lightning II aircraft in the Navy and Marine Corps continues to rise, the number of missions flown increases—and with them, the requirements for maintenance and repair.
The requirement for in-service repair and the need to mend battle damage don’t always come at a convenient time, or in a convenient location, and that’s where the F-35 Rapid Response Team (RRT) comes in. This team of highly skilled, cross-trained aircraft maintenance professionals stands ready to answer the call for support anywhere in the world at any time.
Based at Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE), RRT members can deploy at a moment’s notice to any location, from a Marine Corps Air Station halfway around the globe to a Navy aircraft carrier afloat in the Indo-Pacific region. As more operational squadrons convert from legacy aircraft to the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II, the team’s workload has increased.
“Over the past few years, the Rapid Response Team has ramped up the number of service requests it responds to,” said Ike Rettenmair, F-35 Branch Head at FRCE. “More aircraft in the fleet leads to a higher operational tempo, which leads to more depot-level support required for the aircraft.”
In fact, in fiscal year 2022, which started Oct. 1, 2021, and runs through Sept. 30, the F-35 RRT has already deployed 12 times to various locations—outpacing its entire fiscal year 2021 calendar by almost 50 percent, with four months still to go, said Jeanie Holder, F-35 Joint Program Office induction manager at FRCE. In comparison, the team deployed just seven times from 2017-2019.
The requirement for depot-level support of specific repairs has led to a higher demand for RRT support, Holder said, which allowed the squadrons flying the aircraft to reduce the downtime when compared to sending the aircraft to a Fleet Readiness Center for traditional depot-level service. Having the RRT team available to travel to the aircraft in need has made FRCE the go-to provider for these repairs, rather than sending the aircraft to a depot facility for modification.
“FRC East was able to quickly provide this support to return these aircraft back to service quickly, and has become the provider for this type of support within the continental United States, as required,” she said. “The RRT will remain highly engaged for these types of repairs.”
Recent deployments to Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Iwakuni, Japan, the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) and the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) have allowed the F-35 RRT to shine in its support of Naval Aviation and flight line readiness.
At MCAS Iwakuni, the team repaired two F-35B aircraft for Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121, the first forward-deployed permanent F-35 squadron in the Marine Corps. One fix involved the aircraft’s structure; the other involved both the aircraft’s structure and skin, the outer surface that covers most of the wings and fuselage.
“Both aircraft were damaged outside the organizational-level maintenance and repair capabilities, and the Fleet Readiness Center Western Pacific Detachment is not equipped or qualified to perform maintenance on the F-35,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Anson Conner, VMFA-121 maintenance material control officer. “The work performed by the RRT artisans returned one aircraft to the fight and put another one back in our control to repair, keeping VMFA-121 prepared to defend our country and its allies.
“I would rate their skill at a 10 out of 10,” Conner said. “I have not come across any other maintainers with that much F-35 knowledge, and we were very satisfied with the work they performed on our aircraft.”
For Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147, the Navy’s first non-training F-35 squadron, the RRT deployed to the USS Carl Vinson, afloat in the Indo-Pacific region, to assist with repairs to an F-35C. The RRT’s expertise helped facilitate a repair aboard the ship that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
“VFA-147 personnel performed a majority of the repair work. The RRT removed a permanent skin panel, prepared it for reinstallation and installed it back on the jet,” said Lt. j.g. Oliver Williamson, VFA-147 maintenance material control officer. “Some work on aircraft require depot artisans and their knowledge of in-depth aircraft repair in reference to work not normally performed by organizational technicians. This type of work is critical when a situation arises where this type of expertise is required.”
The RRT has worked aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln twice in 2022, assisting VFMA-314 in the repair of several F-35C aircraft, which had a huge impact on the squadron’s readiness.
“The work performed by the FRC team enables the squadron to have enough aircraft to conduct our missions on a daily basis,” said Maj. Derek Heinz, VMFA-314 aircraft maintenance officer. “Without assistance from this team, we would have 30 percent of our jets out of the fight.”
Heinz said VMFA-314 has built a relationship with FRCE and the F-35 RRT, and that has grown during the squadron’s deployment due to its increased requests for support.
“The relationship is unique in that FRC East, while located in Cherry Point, supports our squadron even when we are halfway around the world on an aircraft carrier. It presents many logistical challenges for both parties to gain and provide support to enable mission accomplishment,” he said. “The artisans did an excellent job and have returned the aircraft to the squadron with all of its capabilities fully restored. This enables our squadron to continue to provide fifth-generation fighter capabilities to Carrier Air Wing 9.”
Williamson echoed praise for the work the F-35 RRT artisans performed aboard the USS Carl Vinson.
“The two artisans who came to assist VFA-147 were very skilled in their profession. Once all of the parts and tools required for the repair arrived on the ship, they wasted no time doing their job,” he said. “During the process, they had VFA-147 technicians alongside them and both teams were learning from each other. The repair process went much smoother than anticipated and is directly due to their skill at their profession.”
The F-35 RRT artisans’ depth of skill—demonstrated in deployments like these, across the globe—and flexibility makes the team a valuable addition to the F-35 program, Holder said. The proven benefits of the team’s performance is inspiring similar initiatives.
“Because of FRCE’s F-35 depot artisan experience across all variants of the aircraft, as well as the agility to quickly deploy, the RRT is the sought-after asset for fleet support,” she said. “In fact, the U.S. Air Force is in the process of standing up a similar team, modeled after FRCE’s team.”
With its ability to put aircraft back on the flight line—or flight deck—that would otherwise be grounded for longer periods while awaiting depot-level maintenance, the F-35 RRT is a valuable asset to both FRCE and the F-35 enterprise, Rettenmair said.
“Having an RRT that can deploy within 72 hours to fix any variant of F-35 anywhere in the world is not only value added to the F-35 enterprise, it also shows FRCE’s dedication to support,” he said. “Our FRCE RRT artisans are truly the most dedicated, highly-skilled depot F-35 artisans there are. The majority are veterans so they understand what it is like having an aircraft down awaiting maintenance and the value of expeditious repair capability to get that asset back up and in the fight.
“As a former Marine and aircraft mechanic myself, I also understand that level of need, and the value we bring to the fleet,” Rettenmair said. “Service to the fleet is what we do and what we will continue to do, supporting F-35 in any time and place.”