From BOLT to MCA: 388th Fighter Wing history on forward edge of agile F-35A maintenance

  • Published
  • By Micah Garbarino
  • 388th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – Maintainers from the 388th Fighter Wing’s 4th Fighter Generation Squadron recently participated in Agile Flag 23-1, where they practiced under the new Multi-Capable Airman construct for the first time at a large off-station exercise.

Agile Flag is “a bi-annual exercise, which focuses on Air Combat Command's ability to quickly generate combat power while continuing to move, maneuver and sustain the wing and subordinate force elements in a dynamic contested environment.”

“The MCA construct provides us a huge operational capability,” said Lt. Col. Gregory Farrell, 4th Fighter Squadron commander. “We can go into a remote airfield, with a very small team, under combat conditions and land, refuel and rearm and take off again in a very short period.”

The MCA concept is not the first endeavor to match the size of the maintenance footprint to what is necessary for quick, survivable combat operations.

Since receiving the first F-35A Lightning II in 2015, maintainers in the 388th Fighter Wing have been developing blueprints for small, flexible maintenance teams to forward deploy and generate sorties in an austere location.

“As the first combat operational F-35 wing, we have always tried to push Agile Combat Employment operations here,” said Col. Craig Andrle, 388th Fighter Wing commander. “But, developing ACE is not just about having a smaller footprint, it’s about a smarter footprint.”

The F-35 was designed to be the first fifth-generation aircraft with synergized, portable maintenance, from the skin to the engine. The aircraft could report its own health, and any quick repairs needed could be done on the flightline in the “shadow of the wing,” instead of a back shop with days of downtime.

Because of this “ease of maintenance,” leaders in the early days of the wing’s F-35 stand-up began pursuing training plans that created a super-maintainer, one that could diagnose and fix an avionics problem, or mend the jet’s low-observable coating, then refuel and launch it.

The first iteration was called the Blended Operational Lightning Technician Program (BOLT) at Hill. That program combined maintenance-specific Air Force specialty codes, essentially job descriptions, into two career tracks. Maintainers in the air vehicle track were crew chiefs, fuels and low observable technicians. Airmen in the mission systems track focused on avionics, weapons and egress. There was a heavy training burden to stay current on all the required tasks and the constant pull of generating real-world sorties on the flightline never stops.

Because of the ongoing training requirements, BOLT eventually gave way to the Lightning Technician Program, where the number of cross-capable maintainers would be drastically reduced. LTP maintainers were to be a highly-specialized unit within each fighter generation squadron, trained in all essential aspects of F-35 maintenance and able to be sent out to support ACE operations when called upon.  This enabled LTP maintainers to focus intensely on all their training requirements.

At the same time, the 388th Maintenance Group began training all flight line maintainers in “Core 54,” tasks. These were not all-encompassing, like LTP, but focused simply on the tasks required to launch and recover aircraft – inspections, refueling, servicing oil, hydraulics, marshaling and more. This plan still provided combat flexibility, but drastically reduced the training required for an average maintainer.

These programs were driven within the 388th FW to meet the growing demand for ACE capabilities with the F-35A. While none of them were ever adopted by the Air Force for wider implementation, they all contributed to a broader knowledge on how to build and sustain F-35 combat maintenance teams and prepared the wing as it integrated the new Multi-Capable Airmen training plan into its operations.

“From all of these programs we learned where we get the most efficiencies, what makes the most sense for each F-35 maintenance career field,” Andrle said. “Now that training list has been pared down and they are tasks that are complimentary to their primary duties. It’s not just about getting efficiencies on the flightline, but also efficiencies and sustainability in the classrooms and back shops when it comes to training time. All that experience helps us as we move out with our MCA training plan in the wing.”

The current plan, widely called, “MCA” is much simpler, and driven not only by platform requirements, but also in-theater requirements. Instead of taking place continuously, this training matches the “battle rhythm” of each unit’s phase in the Force Generation cycle for deployments and response taskings.    

“MCA has transformed into something a lot larger than just the individual cross-training requirements for each career field,” said Maj. Cahn Wadhams, 4th Fighter Generation Squadron commander. “It now involves building a mindset at basic training, setting the correct foundation during tech school, Ready Airmen Training, Expeditionary Training, and theater-specific training.”

The training is tailored to each duty specialty. If an MCA team consists of munitions troops, weapons loaders, crew chiefs, avionics technicians, fuels and security forces, the munitions troops would be cross-trained on weapons loading, and the avionics technicians may be cross trained on fuels and crew chief duties.

“We’ve really narrowed down our training to only what we need to recover, refuel, rearm aircraft out of a contingency location,” said 4th FGS MCA team lead Master Sgt. Chelsea Mulnix. “We’ve developed a better definition for what it means to operate out of a contingency location and tailored our training to that.”