Next May 6, a Thursday, folks at the Burlington Air National Guard Base in northwestern Vermont might consider cutting a cake. A very big cake.
It will be the first anniversary of what should be hailed as a remarkable achievement for the state’s 158th Fighter Wing — and for the entire Air National Guard.
Guests of honor could include Staff Sgt. Joe Payea, Airman 1st Class Isabel Murphy and Maj. Michael Cady, call sign Klepto. They are the crew members and pilot for the 500th sortie flown by the Green Mountain Boys in their new F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters.
“It just so happened that I ended up in the jet for the 500th sortie,” says Cady, the 134th Fighter Squadron’s chief of weapons and tactics. “That’s pretty cool. It’s special to be a part of not only this unit [but also] such a milestone as 500 sorties.”
Klepto piloted the third of six fighters launched on that brisk spring morning for a training exercise. And, all modesty aside, his milestone flight punctuated the determination and resourcefulness the Vermont fighter wing and the New Hampshire Guard’s 157th Air Refueling Wing have needed over the past year to usher the Air Guard into the 21st century.
The wings have bid adieu to their reliable F-16 Fighting Falcons and KC-135 Stratotankers and are embracing the newest high-tech aircraft in the Air Force inventory — 20 Lockheed Martin F-35A fighters and 12 Boeing KC-46 Pegasus tankers. The wings are the second operational fighter and tanker wings with the new aircraft in the entire Air Force to receive the aircraft.
They are doing so while grappling with new equipment that functions like new high-tech equipment often initially functions — not quite as well as advertised. The bugs and other issues are well-chronicled. The F-35 has an undependable computerized maintenance and logistics system and the KC-46 has faulty refueling equipment.
But the challenges haven’t dimmed the pride at the two units roughly only 200 miles apart. Not only do they have new aircraft, they are helping author the book on operating and maintaining the planes as they are among the first in the Air Force to receive them. It’s something almost unprecedented for the Guard.
“I think what is most unique with us and the F-35s and New Hampshire and their KC-46s is not that we’re getting them at the same time. It’s that we’re on the leading edge of getting them at the same time,” says Col. Nate Graber, the commander of the 158th Operations Group.
“We obviously know it’s a gigantic responsibility,” he adds. “It puts us under a microscope. I think it pushes us harder to be better units because we know we cannot fail. The reputation of the Air National Guard is riding on our shoulders.”
The reputation of the Air National Guard is riding on our shoulders.
—Col. Nate Graber, the commander of the Vermont Air National Guard's 158th Operations Group
COMMANDERS at both unitsare determined to get back in the fight, which means becoming fully mission capable as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the challenges with the aircraft have the matter beyond their control.
Still, these pricey airplanes are not just casting shadows on the tarmac this summer at Burlington and Pease Air National Guard Base near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They are flying training missions as often and as hard as they can be, wing members insist.
“C1 by ’21” is the objective for the Green Mountain Boys. “It’s catchy. We all take it to heart,” says Col. David Shevchik Jr., who succeeded Col. David Smith as commander of the 158th in January. “C1 by ’21 means that by the time we come out of conversion, officially, which is the end of 2021, we’re going to meet our C1 readiness requirements.”
The first two F-35As landed last Sept. 19. Maintenance personnel first got to work and learn on the planes before pilots could become frequent flyers. Sixteen had been delivered by mid-July, including the 500th F-35 built by Lockheed Martin. The final four are expected by the end of September.
Twenty pilots have been trained, says Lt. Col. Tony Marek, the commander of the wing’s fighter squadron. Eight more pilots are in training and seven are waiting to go to school, he says.
The wing spent 60 days in February and March exercising the new jets at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida with the 58th Fighter Squadron during Southern Lightning because aircraft shelters in Vermont were not completely constructed, says Col. Adam Rice, the 158th’s deputy commander.
Meanwhile, the 158th’s nearly 500 maintainers are adjusting to the technological advances that make the F-35 arguably the world’s most advanced flying machine.
The aircraft is a maintenance game-changer. Seven career fields required for the departed F-16 Fighting Falcons aren’t needed for the F-35, says Lt. Col. Adam Nichols, the aircraft maintenance squadron commander. But there are three new ones, including low observable aircraft structural maintenance — a specialty to care for the stealth stuff.
“I feel that the old hands welcome the new platform. It’s revitalizing,” says Senior Master Sgt. Tina Deep, the weapons element supervisor. “There are challenges with any new process. But nobody has been digging their heels in and saying they don’t want to learn it.”
Most everyone seems to like the aircraft. The same cannot be said of ALIS, pronounced Alice, the Autonomic Logistics Information System. It’s supposed to enable the planes to self-diagnose maintenance needs and even identify needed parts in the supply chain. Unfortunately, ALIS doesn’t work properly, and the consternation reaches all the way to the top of the Pentagon.
Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in early 2019 commented, “I can guarantee that no Air Force maintainer will ever name their daughter Alice.” She characterized ALIS as “a proprietary system so frustrating to use, maintainers said they were wasting 10-15 hours a week fighting with it … and looking for ways to bypass it to try to make F-35s mission capable.”
A newer system called ODIN — Operational Data Integrated Network — is in the works but is not expected to be available until late 2022, perhaps a year after the the Green Mountain Boys intend to be C1. So they are dealing with ALIS — with dedicated support from a dozen Lockheed Martin administrators, Nichols says.
“The way I would describe ALIS is the way I would describe the airplane,” Graber says. “Ninety percent of it is great, and then there’s this 10% that’s not so great. And on bad days you tend to focus on the 10% that’s not as good as the system or process that you had in place before. They both have really big advantages, I think, in the long run. But they do need to become more efficient with that ALIS system.”
Does that mean the wing can be C1 in 17 months if ALIS is not fully functional? Could the jets be flown as effectively as required in combat?
No one seems to be sure.
“Some of those things are out of our control,” Shevchik says. “We use what’s given to us. We’ll continue to make do and execute the mission regardless of what we have or don’t have. I know that we can be C1 by ’21 regardless.”
One item the unit does believe it has some control over is aircraft noise, which drove some local opposition to the F-35s’ arrival in Burlington.
Shevchik says only one jet has taken off on afterburner, which is well beneath the 5% limit imposed by the environmental impact statement. Takeoffs are timed “to be respectful of the community.”
Final approaches are flown at the highest altitudes that the weather allows. And the wing’s “full-stop” policy means that “when we come back here, we just land. That’s it.”
No practice approaches or “touch on goes,” he says.
I've had to almost relearn flying because some of the habits we had with the old ones you couldn't translate into the new ones.
—Col. John Pogorek, the commander of the New Hampshire Air National Guard's 157th Air Refueling Wing
MEMBERS of the 157th Air Refueling Wing believe many people think their aircraft are just sitting idly waiting to be fixed.
“People have the impression that these aircraft are not refueling, that they’re not moving cargo, that they’re not moving people. That’s all wrong,” insists Chief Master Sgt. Michael George Jr., the wing’s inflight refueling superintendent who oversees the boom operators.
“We are weekly, daily doing just about all of that here at Pease,” he says. “And we are definitely passing gas.”
Col. John Pogorek, the wing commander, is equally adamant about the wing’s accomplishments while acknowledging, “We wish things were happening a little bit faster than they are.”
By late July, the wing had received seven of its 12 new tankers beginning with the first two that arrived early last August. The seventh one landed in early March. The final five are expected by October or perhaps November.
Fourteen of the 36 aircrews of two pilots and a boom operator have completed training at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma or McConnell in Kansas, and another 12 will have finished or be in training by year’s end.
Meanwhile, maintenance personnel have completed formal training in seven critical career fields, including crew chiefs, hydraulics and propulsion, says Col. Jeffrey Cole, the wing’s KC-46 program integration officer.
“Right now we’re shooting for 32 sorties a month. That will grow to 54 sorties a month once we get all of our crews trained,” Pogorek says. COVID-19 forced a cutback to one sortie a week, but the wing has gotten back to 32 a month, he adds.
The new tankers had flown 155 sorties by July 20, Cole adds, and had performed boom-refueling training on C-17 transports, KC-135 tankers, a B-52 bomber and other KC-46s. They also passed gas to F/A-18 fighters out of Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, with centerline drogues that give the tankers the flexibility to refuel both types of receivers during the same mission.
There have been growing pains, acknowledged Pogorek and others, including Lt. Col. Stephanie Kerrigan, a civil engineer. She was instrumental in planning the $100 million in construction projects at Pease that were required to base the new aircraft, which is a very different aircraft than the 60-year-old KC-135s they replaced.
“It was a big paradigm shift. I think a lot of people went into this thinking it was just a bigger KC-135,” says Kerrigan, who devoted four years to the project. “In fact, everything from operations to maintenance to support equipment is radically different.”
Enlarging two maintenance hangars to accommodate the new tankers were among the priority projects. One was roughly 99% complete in July, Pogorek says, and the other is more than halfway finished and is expected to be finished next February.
Meanwhile, three of the Pease planes have flown to San Antonio, Texas, so Boeing could repair leaking fuel systems, Pogorek explains. One had to go back again.
Two of the other KC-46’s headline-generating issues have not directly affected the training at Pease. One is with the refueling boom, which fails to easily accommodate lighter aircraft, such as the A-10 fighter. Another is with the remote vision system — the camera that enables boom operators to steer the boom to receiver aircraft without having to look out a window. It currently provides warped or distorted imagery in certain lighting conditions.
“We’re not experiencing that here, but we’re not flying with the full complement that the test squadrons are flying with,” Pogorek says. “This is the first time I’ve had the privilege of picking up a brand new plane, so no complaints here. Maybe that’s common with a lot of weapons systems that get fielded today.”
Overall, the wing’s pilots like the new tankers even though, as Pogorek says, “I’ll never know this new plane like I did that old plane. In some ways, I’ve had to almost relearn flying because some of the habits we had with the old [KC-135s] you couldn’t translate into the new ones. But this new one just has more capabilities and is certainly less fatiguing because of the automation that comes with it.”
Boom operators, among others, are adjusting to these flying computers. “The equipment that exists, we’re learning to make it work,” says George who, at 58, says he has encountered no problems with the remote visual system during his 10 months on the KC-46. “If we practice enough, we can make it work.”
It remains to be seen, however, how quickly the airplanes, and therefore the wing, will be declared fully operational.
An upgraded remote vision system may not be fielded until 2023, Pogorek says. It could take “many years” to fix the refueling boom, he adds. “I think both of those things are going to have to occur before anyone is going to say that the aircraft will be fully operational.”
THREE YEARS can seem like a long way off, but it’s more like the day after tomorrow for Air Guard wings at two state capitals — Madison, Wisconsin, and Montgomery, Alabama. The two are on track to join the Air Force’s F-35A stealth fighter community in 2023.
Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett made it official in mid-April by signing the record of decision that designates Madison’s Truax Field and Montgomery’s Dannelly Field as the next Guard installations to receive the Joint Strike Fighter after about three decades of flying F-16s.
“Putting F-35s at these two bases continues our transition into the next generation of air superiority,” Barrett said. Five bases were originally considered during a three-year process. Air Force-wide, they are in line to be the fifth and sixth wings to get the new planes.
And the service recently announced the Guard’s 125th Fighter Wing in Jacksonville, Florida, will get the F-35A. It will be the first F-15 Eagle unit to convert. The Air Force has yet to announce a second Guard unit to receive the KC-46.
“This is certainly a long-term program as we go through these conversions,” says Lt. Col. Dan Statz at the 115th Fighter Wing in Madison where a sense of urgency is already in the air.
So much to do, so little time is one impression you get from members of those wings’ unit conversion offices. Thank God for the Green Mountain Boys is another.
Nineteen construction projects totaling between $90 million and $120 million are being planned to accommodate the Wisconsin wing’s 18 new primary fighters that are scheduled to begin replacing the same number of F-16s beginning in April 2023, Statz says.
The projects include renovating Truax’s two large hangars, adding a full-mission F-35 simulator, and building a new alert facility and fuel-cell corrosion bay, he says.
Construction costs, however, are but a fraction of what it costs to get the F-35As. Take, for example, the 20 earmarked to replace the 25 F-16s in Montgomery.
“The estimated costs to bring the F-35 to Alabama is projected at $1.8 billion,” says Lt. Col. Kevin Pugh, the director of the 187th Fighter Wing’s unit conversion office. “That investment includes approximately $60 million in base construction, $175 million in F-35 parts and support equipment, and $1.6 billion in fifth-generation stealth aircraft.”
“The designs for all of these projects are nearing completion,” he says. “We plan to put the first shovel in the ground in early 2021 and then have all construction projects completed prior to the first F-35 arrival which is planned for December 2023.”
The Green Mountain Boys deserve a lot of credit for all of that progress, insist spokesmen for both wings.
“I know all of their home addresses,” laughs Chief Master Sgt. John Tadlock in Montgomery. “It’s kind of a family relationship in the Guard where we all stay in touch. Believe me, what they have given to us, provided to us, to pave the road to the F-35 is tremendous. We can’t say ‘Thank you’ enough to them.”
Bob Haskell is a retired Maine Army National Guard master sergeant and a freelance journalist in Falmouth, Mass. He may be contacted at [email protected].
F-35A Lightning II
PRIMARY FUNCTION: Multirole stealth fighter
PRIME CONTRACTOR: Lockheed Martin
HEIGHT: 14 feet (4.38 meters)
LENGTH: 51 feet (15.7 meters)
WINGSPAN: 35 feet (10.7 meters)
POWER PLANT: One Pratt & Whitney F135-PW-100 turbofan engine
SPEED: Mach 1.6 (1,200 mph)
RANGE: More than 1,350 miles with internal fuel, unlimited with aerial refueling
CEILING: Above 50,000 feet (15 kilometers)
ARMAMENT: Internal and external capability. Munitions carried vary based on mission requirements.
ENTERED AIR FORCE SERVICE: 2016
SOURCE: Air Force
PRIMARY FUNCTION: Aerial refueling and airlift
PRIME CONTRACTOR: The Boeing Company
HEIGHT: 51 feet, 9 inches (15.5 meters)
LENGTH: 159 feet, 2 inches (48.5 meters)
WINGSPAN: 156 feet, 1 inch (47.5 meters)
POWER PLANT: Two Pratt & Whitney 4062 turbofan engines
FUEL CAPACITY: 212,299 pounds
CARGO CAPACITY: 65,000 pounds, 118 passengers or 54 patients for aeromedical evacuation
PALLET POSITIONS: 18
CREW: 15 permanent seats for aircrew, including aeromedical evacuation aircrew
ENTERED AIR FORCE SERVICE: 2019
SOURCE: Air Force