388th FW maintainers design and produce cheaper, tougher F-35 equipment

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

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – Two 388th Logistics Support Squadron maintainers are accelerating change by using their design skills to create sturdier covers for air data ports on F-35A Lightning IIs.

Their design protects a critical part of the aircraft and can be produced in-house, reducing the replacement cost of a failed part from more than $600 to under $50.

On either side of an F-35’s nose are small clusters of tiny holes. Behind them are sensors that collect in-flight data, like air pressure. After a sortie, when a jet is parked, those ports need to be covered.

“We have to keep out debris and moisture and anything that could obstruct those holes and keep the sensors from working properly,” said Master Sgt. Christopher Essue, 34th Fighter Generation Squadron production superintendent, “If those sensors fail, it could provide bad flight data and affect the avionics.”

The original data port covers from the manufacturer are mechanical, they lock into place with tiny quick-release pins. These pins are easily bent or broken, sometimes inside the aircraft. There are also a rubber seals that frequently fail or fall off in high temperatures. Both are common issues, said Essue. When the pins or seals fail they cannot be repaired, and replacing the entire part costs roughly $650.

Essue went to the 388th LSS Air Force Repair Enhancement Program shop here with the idea of creating magnetic covers, something he had seen tried and failed during his time as an F-22 maintainer. He thought it might work with the F-35. The AFREP shop here has a history of coming up with fixes for everything from broken F-22 maintenance equipment to new designs for missile silo button-covers.

After some trial and error, the AFREP shop finalized a design. Their new covers seal the ports with an O-ring, centered in a slightly oversized plastic triangle that is rubber-like, and flexible. The triangle is lined with 20 small magnets embedded around the edges. The covers are also interchangeable. They can be used on either side of any F-35, said Staff Sgt. Christopher O’Donnell, an AFREP technician, who along with Tech Sgt. Justin Platt, came up with the design.

“You just line it up and stick it on the side of the plane and it covers the ports quickly, without anything sticking out that can bend or break,” O’Donnell said. “Right now, they cost about $45 to make and each pair takes about 22 hours in the 3-D printer.”

The new covers were tested for three weeks in all weather conditions. Airmen and engineers also monitored other systems on the jet to ensure the covers and magnets would not cause any interference. They passed all tests with flying colors, Essue said.

O’Donnell and Platt are working to patent the design, which the Air Force will own. They are also sharing their success with other F-35 bases.

“We’re printing for all three of our fighter generation squadrons. Other F-35 bases are purchasing the same equipment and we’re going to share the design files with them,” O’Donnell said. “Theoretically, in the next year and a half, every F-35 in the Air Force could be using these.”