SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. – As the first Air National Guard unit to base the F-35A Lightning II, the 158th Fighter Wing is familiar with making history and breaking records. Now, the wing claims another title: home of the first F-35 low observable (LO) 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’s Green Mountain Boys: low observable aircraft structural maintenance (LOASM), traditionally reserved for only 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, LOASM craftsman assigned to the 158th Maintenance Group (MXG), Vermont Air National Guard.
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 AFSCs.
“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. … It’s just all new for us and trying to create it and learn all these different techniques and get spun up on it,” said Lamay.
Lamay said the F-35 is different than the F-16s the wing flew for more than 30 years 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,” he said.
LO maintains the stealth coatings on the jet and performs repairs that ensure the integrity of the stealth coatings are as good as they can be, according to George. 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 were required to go to technical school for 13 weeks in Pensacola, Florida. If already trained in aircraft structural maintenance, Airmen could instead train 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.
Green Mountain Boys who volunteered to join this career opportunity and cross-train into the new AFSC included electricians and crew chiefs and members from the engine shop, non-destructive inspections (NDI), 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 sent Airmen to learn from active-duty counterparts at Luke, Hill, Nellis and Eglin Air Force bases to prepare 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,” said Tech. Sgt. Christopher Bohan, LOASM craftsman assigned to the 158th MXG. “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.”
Master Sgt. Matthew Dykas, 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,” said Lamay.
Considering the various locations where 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, 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.”
The 158th FW has its full complement of 20 jets and will be considered mission-ready at the end of its conversion timeline in 2021.
“Being a part of the Green Mountain Boys is a legacy. We always strive to be the best, and I personally think we are the best right now,” Bohan said.