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Air Force repurposes condemned F-35 aircraft for training aids

  • Published
  • By Todd Cromar, 75 ABW/PA

Airmen here are currently involved in transforming a condemned F-35A Lightning II into sectional training aids for use during instruction of F-35 maintainers.

The aircraft was involved in a landing mishap at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, in 2020. The pilot safety ejected, but the aircraft burned after impact and was considered unrepairable.

After the accident, Airmen in the 372nd Training Squadron, Det. 3, at Hill AFB sought the aircraft as a chance to bolster maintenance training opportunities for military and civilian F-35 maintainers assigned to the base’s 388th Fighter Wing, 419th Fighter Wing, and Ogden Air Logistics Complex.

“Initially, the jet was to be scrapped and destroyed,” said Master Sgt. Andrew Wilkow, 372nd TRS. ”However, we explored the possibility that some parts such as avionics, fuel cell and gun system might still be in relative pristine condition inside the damaged crust and usable for training.”

Since the 372nd TRS previously worked with the F-35 Joint Program Office on another F-35 mishap aircraft project last spring to successfully re-install the wings of an F-35 and turn it into an aircraft battle damage trainer, this time the JPO called to return the favor and offer assistance to the 372nd.

Working with Dan Santos, F-35 JPO heavy maintenance manager, a small team of aircraft specialists traveled to Eglin AFB to accomplish a site survey of the condemned aircraft, where it was determined that major components needed for the training aids were still intact and usable.

“Obviously, accidents are unfortunate, but when it comes to aircraft involved in a mishap, I have always found that there is a silver lining and something to be gained,” Santos said. “In terms of the wreckage being recycled and used for other purposes, these kinds of innovative efforts save the DoD and taxpayers millions of dollars.”

In coordination with a U.S. Navy unit also interested in some of the aircraft’s components for test and evaluation, an arrangement was made between the sister service units to relocate the aircraft to Hill, saving time and money for both parties.

“Until now, maintenance training has been accomplished using operational aircraft,” said Tech. Sgt. Dennis Corcoran, 372nd TRS. “Obviously, this is a significant challenge because often units are unable to support training evolutions, simply due to operational commitments or the real-world need for jets requiring maintenance to be immediately returned to flying status, in order to maintain the squadron’s readiness requirements.”

He said these new training aids will alleviate a good portion of those issues.

Tech. Sgt. Kevin Browning, 388th Maintenance Squadron NCOIC of corrosion control, said the salvaged aircraft was delivered in July and his team immediately started work cleaning and making the entire airframe non-hazardous for the safety of those who will use the components.

“Our shop is involved with removing contaminants, cleaning up any fluid or chemical residue, trimming off exposed burnt composites, and removing sharp edges or metal damage,” he said. “Then we prep and paint the components, so that they are safe to handle.”

The next phase of the project will include cutting the entire fuselage lengthwise and then into individual component sections. The sections will then be framed and mounted on stands to give maintainers as much access as possible to the training aids.

“The whole process has been a team effort from the beginning and only possible through the time, effort and cooperation put forth by many individual professionals throughout the Air Force, as well as many highly skilled Airmen, from multiple units across Hill Air Force Base,” Corcoran said.

The project is expected to be completed during the next year.