NORTH CAROLINA –
Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE) marked a milestone in its support of the F-35 Lightning II program when the depot recently completed its 100th F-35 parachute repack.
According to Fleet Readiness Center East Commanding Officer Capt. James M. Belmont, the depot inducted its first F-35 parachute in February 2022 and quickly established an efficient workflow.
“We are extremely proud to reach this milestone less than one year after inducting our first parachute,” Belmont said. “This achievement showcases the depot’s ability to support the needs of the warfighter and highlights the continuing expansion of our F-35 capabilities.”
FRCE declared capability on its first F-35 component in 2018. By the close of 2022, the depot had declared capability on 32 components, including the parachutes for the fifth-generation fighter.
“Our component workload plays a critical role in supporting fleet requirements and mission readiness,” Belmont said. “It’s something we are very proud of. Getting these parachutes and other components out to the fleet ensures that pilots can continue to train and conduct real-world operations.”
Parachutes for the F-35 are first assembled and installed by the manufacturer. At scheduled intervals, they must come off the aircraft for repacking. FRCE F-35 Components Program Manager Angie Lane said this process entails rigorous inspections and maintenance by a team of highly trained specialists at the depot.
“Our Ordnance Shop works the F-35 parachutes,” Lane said. “Once finished, these parachutes can be used in all variants of the F-35. They could go to a military service depot, to a squadron or to a foreign country that flies the F-35.”
Standing up the capability to satisfy these requirements began long before the first parachute arrived at FRCE. A team of experts drawn from throughout the depot had to consider factors such as current and future workloads, manpower requirements, facility and tooling needs and supply support. A project of this scale also requires intensive collaboration not only within FRCE, but with outside entities as well.
“This was a huge initiative,” Lane said. “It encompasses the F-35 Joint Program Office, the manufacturer and other partners as well as folks from throughout the depot. Our quality assurance inspectors, engineers, production controllers, Examiner and Evaluator teams and the artisans inside the Ordnance Shop all play crucial roles.”
Despite the number of collaborators and the complexities of the project, Lane said the team made rapid progress. She said knowing the role a parachute plays in military aviation provided the team with a sense of urgency.
“When you think about all the components on an aircraft, you might not think of the parachute first,” Lane said. “It’s not part of the engine or the fuel system, but it is absolutely crucial.”
Because they are life-saving pieces of equipment, great care is taken with each parachute that is inducted at the depot.
When a parachute arrives at FRCE for a repack, quality assurance inspectors at the depot review history sheets, which log any changes or repairs made to the parachute. They also verify that the parachute is scheduled for a repack.
The parachute then goes to the artisans in the Ordinance Shop who disassemble it. This is performed on a table measuring more than 50 feet long where the parachute is put through a rigorous inspection process. The packers look for imperfections and damage, anything that might potentially hinder the parachute from deploying if engaged. This is often imperceptible to the untrained eye. Because of this, the artisans working the parachutes undergo highly specialized training.
According to Andrew Altman, the overhaul and repair supervisor who oversees FRCE’s Ordnance and Cryogenics shops, the artisans working the F-35 parachutes must graduate from the Navy’s Air Crew Survival Equipment course in Pensacola, Florida. The course is two and a half months long.
“Our people train alongside military personnel,” Altman said. “It’s parachute rigger school. After that, we have to attend additional training specific to the aircraft type, model, and series. In this case, that means the F-35. We have had a few people come to us who already went through all the training, but we had to send most of our people out to this.”
If there is anything that needs to be replaced, the artisans order the parts and replace them. The parachute is then reassembled. Lane said the artisans log any changes made to the parachute as well as anything that was replaced. These history sheets go back to quality assurance inspectors who verify and validate the information.
“This is important because the information is shared with our partners and put into a database,” Lane said. “That way, when a customer receives that parachute, they can electronically obtain this data for their records of the aircraft.”
Because they must ensure that every parachute will function flawlessly if it is ever used, Altman said that artisans must pay careful attention to every aspect of the process.
“You have to be very meticulous,” Altman said. “You are looking over every panel, inch by inch. You have to be just as meticulous with the record keeping too. It’s all very strict.”
The work might seem overwhelming to those outside of the Ordnance Shop. Lane described the parachute packers as some of the most dedicated people she’s ever worked with.
“They have friends and family that are pilots,” Lane said. “Many served in the military. They want to know that if the parachute ever needs to be used, the pilot is going to come home safely.”
Despite the successful completion of the depot’s 100th parachute repack, Lane said the team isn’t slowing down to celebrate. She said they have already set their sights on the F-35 seat survival kits, which FRCE will likely be declaring capability on in the very near future.
“That’s going to be another huge initiative that is going to take on the same sense of urgency as the parachute,” Lane said. “There are a lot of folks depending on this depot to give them what they need. We all know that, and we are successful because everyone involved takes this responsibility seriously and puts forth maximum effort.”
From Fleet Readiness Center East.