HILL AIR FORCE BASE – How do you make a 51-foot-long, 35-foot-wide fighter jet undetectable? There's no black magic that exists to make the F-35A Lightning II invisible, but it does have masking features which make it challenging to detect, track or target by radar with missiles or by an enemy aircraft. The cloaks of these aircraft are called low-observable technology and are managed by highly trained airmen.
“You can't just read the steps in the manual,” said Master Sgt. John Knowles, 388th Maintenance Squadron section chief. “There are requirements for who can do it and inspect it … We take doing it correctly very seriously.”
With stealth designed-in from day one, the F-35 has an unmatched ability to evade enemy detection and enter contested airspace. The F-35’s aligned edges, reduced engine signature, internal carriage of weapons and fuel and embedded sensors all contribute to its unique stealth performance.
“The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the cornerstone of our future fighter force and air superiority. Achieving air superiority in a future fight is strongly dependent on full-spectrum dominance. The F-35 and its 5th Generation capabilities are part of our fighter force design that outpaces key competitors,” says Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Air Force Chief of Staff.
The F-35A has several panels that are frequently removed for routine maintenance, and there are various fasteners that keep body panels in place. Without this maintenance, the jet’s ability to avoid radar and various defense systems using specialized materials can deteriorate.
“The panels undergo a very in-depth process of different coatings just to remove the latches and cover the fasteners. In the end, there has to be a balance of covering the panel with the proper material while also maintaining full functionality,” says Staff Sgt. Matthew Hicks, 419th Maintenance Squadron low observable craftsman. “This is the most frequent job done in the shop, while encompassing the processes of many of their tasks within the unit.”
Part of maintaining low observable functions is corrosion control where technicians apply and remove coatings that could be covering rust or damage.
“My favorite part of the job is painting because it's kind of like an art,” said Airman 1st Class Evander Esperanza, 388th Maintenance Squadron low observable journeyman. “You get to see it from the beginning and then see it from the end.”
Maintaining this radar absorbent coating on the surface of the F-35 is a job that takes very detail-oriented, sometimes tedious work – masking every small area, properly mixing chemicals, applying them precisely, smoothing, and assessing the smallest imperfections.
The work done by these craftsmen ensure that the coating looks aesthetically pleasing so its noticeable to others working on the jet that everything is covered underneath and unable to get damaged. Without these coatings, equipment can corrode and delay flight line operations.
“We take pride in being experts in our craft because it depends so much on us,” Knowles said. “There is definitely an art to what we do.”