By Julie Shea
158th Fighter Wing
As the first Air National Guard unit to base the F-35A Lightning II, the 158th Fighter Wing is certainly familiar with making history and breaking records. Now, the wing claims another title: home of the first F-35 low observable shop in the Air National Guard.
In anticipation for the arrival of their first F-35s, a new Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) became available to the Vermont Air National Guard: low observable aircraft structural maintenance, or LOASM, traditionally reserved for active-duty counterparts.
Now with their full complement of 20 F-35s, these cross-trained Airmen make up the first F-35 LO shop of its kind, run completely by Guardsmen.
“We are the first Air National Guard base with the F-35, so we are also the first LO shop for the F-35 in the Air National Guard,” said Tech. Sgt. Jason George, a LOASM craftsman assigned to the 158th Maintenance Group.
For the members of the maintenance group, this distinction speaks beyond the 158th FW’s conversion. Rather, they emphasize their own ground-up development and pride in the success of cross-training all of their members into LO from other Air Force specialties.
“It’s exciting because we took a four-person sheet metal shop and we turned it into an almost 40-person LO shop. We’ve more than quadrupled in size,” said Master Sgt. Douglas Lamay, LOASM work lead assigned to the 158th MXG.
“We are creating a program basically from the ground-up that no other Guard unit has done, and we are doing it with less manning than our active-duty counterparts, and less funding, which is what we have always done in the Guard to complete our missions. It’s just another continuation of us finding ways to do more with less.”
As a LOASM work lead, Lamay is responsible for day-to-day maintenance, scheduling Airmen on jobs, appointments and other tasks. A former crew chief, Lamay reflected on the technical training required to successfully grow this new shop.
“It’s a new AFSC for a Guard unit. It has existed for the B-2s and the F-22s, they have all had LO. But as each new airframe comes out, the LO changes," said Lamay. "It’s just all new for us and trying to create it and learn all these different techniques and get spun up on it."
Compared to the F-16 Fighting Falcons the wing previously flew for more than 30 years, Lamay explained that the F-35 is different due to its low observable features. This new component provides stealth capabilities and shrinks the visibility of the jets to “create survivability and enhance its lethality."
LO could be further described as maintaining the stealth coatings on the jet and performing repairs that ensure the integrity of the stealth coatings are as good as they can be, George said. In other words, LO’s key purpose is to keep the F-35s in the air and off radar.
To learn how to achieve this stealth capability, in addition to other aspects of F-35 maintenance, the Airmen went to technical school for 13 weeks in Pensacola, Florida. If already trained in aircraft structural maintenance, Airmen could instead complete a period of training with a field training detachment. Out of the entire shop, none of these Airmen joined the U.S. Air Force for LO – it simply wasn’t an option before.
Among those who volunteered to join this new career opportunity and cross-train into this newly-available AFSC included prior electricians and crew chiefs, as well as members from the engine shop, nondestructive inspections, sheet metal structural, services and security forces.
“We’ve collected a selection of almost every shop on base to come in and make this shop,” said Lamay. “It’s been pretty impressive. Like, we’re starting from scratch, so we’ve made our own flag. We’re creating the start of our heritage. We’re all in on the ground of it.”
In addition to attending required training, wing leadership also sent Airmen out to learn from their active duty counterparts at Luke, Hill, Nellis and Eglin Air Force bases in preparation for receiving their first two F-35s on Sept. 19, 2019.
“Leadership sent all of us out to all these F-35 bases, three or four years out from our first F-35s landing here, and we all come back with different experiences. At Eglin, I did something different than the person who went to Hill (Air Force Base) or Luke Air Force Base. We all did stuff a little differently and now we take all that information and choose what’s best for our unit. I believe we already started in the right direction,” said Tech. Sgt. Christopher Bohan, LOASM craftsman assigned to the 158th MXG.
“I’m a strong believer that the Vermont Guard looked at all the things active duty does and said we’re going to tweak some stuff and make it better for us, and that’s what we’ve done so far and it’s really working out. We’ve been smart about things with this jet,” added Bohan.
Master Sgt. Matthew Dykas, the 158th MXG LO ASM section chief, said an added benefit of becoming the first to do anything is the ability to share that knowledge with those destined to come next. For the 158th MXG, this means connecting with the Wisconsin Air National Guard and Alabama Air National Guard, two units selected as the next to base the F-35s.
“We’ve already actually started talking to Wisconsin, and we’ve already been sharing some of the lessons we’ve learned just designing our building and where things end up. We were talking with them about how we sent people out to active duty bases to learn, so it was great they got a lot of practical experience but it was in the active duty format,” added Lamay, emphasizing the importance and differences between Guard and active duty training and day-to-day operations.
Considering the various locations these Airmen have trained, and all the future environments the F-35 will fly in, regional differences are being taken into account.
“LO on this jet here in Vermont, snowflakes are like throwing rocks at the jet. Think of getting sandblasted by snowflakes, it doesn’t hold up very well compared to Florida,” said Bohan, who went to Eglin AFB for three and a half years on active duty orders to train in F-35 LOASM.
“But Florida has its own challenges. Florida has rainstorms that are insane. The rain erodes the coatings off, so really in either one you’re doing quite a bit of maintenance.”
When comparing Florida to Vermont in regards to F-35 maintenance, one thing stands out the most to Bohan.
“Paint curing when it’s cold out. That’s one of the things we run into that’s a pain in the butt, so we either have to tow a jet inside to paint it or build some type of contraption to be able to heat that area of the jet.”
Learning the inner workings and quirks of a new career field, combined with the challenge of efficiently teaching traditional Guardsmen, the 158th MXG LO shop continues to formalize their own processes and looks forward to sharing those with leadership and other F-35 bases, explained Lamay.
“We’re creating a standard timeline and training program for what it looks like, starting from scratch to being in a fully-qualified seven level, since we have no data on how long that takes, especially with weekenders only here once a month,” said Lamay.
Dykas said the LO shop continues to track a one-year training plan for bringing traditional Guardsmen up to a journeyman level on all of the core tasks for their Air Force specialties. The next focus for this group will be preparing to deploy, and being able to do so in smaller teams in order to complete all programs and aspects of the job safely, effectively and efficiently.
The 158th FW currently has its full complement of 20 jets and will be considered mission-ready at the end of its conversion timeline in 2021.
“We always strive to be the best, and I personally think we are the best right now,” said Bohan.