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Restoring an F-35A Lightning II: A collaborative endeavor

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  • By Todd Cromar 75th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

F-35 Lightning II maintenance experts at Hill Air Force Base are taking on a seemingly impossible task – stitching two mishap damaged aircraft together into a restored, fully operational F-35. 
 
Led by the F-35 Joint Program Office, the project requires a “dream team” of uniquely qualified individuals from the JPO, the 388th Fighter Wing, the Ogden Air Logistics Complex and Lockheed Martin. 
 
“This is a first for the F-35 program and a very exciting project,” said Dan Santos, F-35 JPO heavy maintenance manager. 
 
After researching the feasibility, the F-35 JPO, working with the 388th Fighter Wing, opted to reconstruct AF-211, an aircraft that encountered a nose landing-gear separation in June 2020. 
 
The nose section of this aircraft is being replaced with the undamaged nose from AF-27, an F-35 that experienced a severe engine fire at Eglin AFB, Florida, in 2014, and is now serving as an Air Force Air Battle Damage and Repair trainer at Hill AFB. 
 
Over the past several years, the F-35 JPO has sought out new opportunities to repurpose useable parts and systems from damaged F-35 aircraft, for continued use and benefit to F-35 maintenance and operations. 

 
 
Building on experience gained from several recent salvage aircraft re-purpose projects – including the stand-up of the first F-35 maintainer training facility using salvaged aircraft sections, as well as the partial restoration of a salvaged F-35 airframe for use as an ABDR trainer – the F-35 JPO is now taking the effort a step further. 
 
The F-35 JPO leveraged this newly established network of skilled professionals, resources and facilities, all of which are located at Hill AFB, to undertake the “Franken-bird” project. 
 
The Ogden Air Logistics Complex has played a significant role by providing hangar space and heavy equipment for the project, Santos said. 
 
“It takes a team to make these types of endeavors successful,” Santos said. “I am very impressed with the collaborative efforts from the various agencies across Hill AFB, working together to make this happen. 
 
Along with Lockheed Martin, the F-35 JPO, and the 388th FW, several units in the Ogden Air Logistics Complex, including the 570th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, 576th AMS, 809th Maintenance Support Squadron and 309th Expeditionary Depot Maintenance Flight, are among the multiple units providing direct support. 
 
Keith White, 388th FW contracting officer, said while the jet is owned by 388th FW, it’s still part of an F-35 JPO contract, and Lockheed is the contractor responsible for the work. 
 
“Work began on the feasibility of this project in January 2020, when the F-35 JPO reached out to us because we had already accomplished the really big damage restoration projects for the F-22,” said Scott Taylor, Lockheed Martin lead mechanical engineer. 
 
However, unlike previous projects, Taylor said this initiative stands out due to its meticulous documentation, which will be used to establish standardized F-35 procedures that can be seamlessly integrated into routine operations in the future. 
 
“All of the aircraft sections can be de-mated and re-mated theoretically, but it’s just never been done before,” Taylor said. “This is the first F-35 ‘Franken-bird’ to date. This is history.” 
 
To complete the work on site at Hill AFB, entirely new, unique specialized tooling, fixtures and equipment have been designed and built, specifically adapted for mobility. These have potential future uses abroad. 
 
“We’ve designed versatile tooling that fits neatly into a conex box, making it transportable to various locations, including forward operation areas,” Taylor said. 
 
These new mobile fixtures achieve the same results as large, stationary automated manufacturing jigs at the F-35 plant in Fort Worth, Texas, but with a new approach. The additional capability will benefit the entire F-35 program. 
 
"The F-35 program is still young compared to all legacy airframes,” said Dave Myers, F-35 JPO Lightning Support Team lead engineer. “We are doing this for the first time, and organizationally for the future, we are creating a process we can move forward with." 
 
This project is currently several months ahead of schedule and showing a completion date of March 2025. 
 
“Not only will this project return a combat asset back to the warfighter, but it opens the door for repairing future mishap aircraft using tooling, equipment, techniques, and knowledge that has been developed,” Santos said.