F-35 maintainer part of aviation history

  • Published
  • By Maj. Karen Roganov
  • Team Eglin Public Affairs
Behind the arrival of every new stealthy, supersonic joint strike fighter, are the amazing stories Airmen behind the scenes will tell about their careers for years to come.

While the local media cameras captured the touchdown of the DoD's first F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter here, Staff Sgt. Michael Sanders, from the 58th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, was fast-footing it on the flight line as a new crew chief recovering his very first jet.

"I was a little anxious," said Sanders who spent his career to this point as an engine back shop troop, who rarely had to perform tasks on an active flight line.

The pressure of two bleachers full of spectators there to witness military aviation history didn't distract him at all.

"He pulled the oil sample in half the time," said Tech Sgt Brian West, also in the 58th AMXS, which is assigned to the 33rd Fighter Wing.

West oversees crew chiefs and engine maintainers, such as Sanders, making the transition from being specialized aerospace propulsion craftsmen to becoming generalist crew chiefs as part of the new way of growing F-35 aircraft maintainers.

Regardless of the maintainer's title, the responsibility remains profound. The pilot who flew the F-35 Sanders helped recover July 14 can attest to this.

"We rely on those guys to be the final voice of reason to ensure it's airworthy and safe," said Lt. Col. Eric Smith, 58th Fighter Squadron director of operations and first Air Force qualified JSF pilot. "Once they inspect the jet from the mission flown they have only two to three hours to get it ready for the next mission."

Sanders was groomed to be a dedicated crew chief for the next F-35 to arrive. With his name printed on the side of the 33rd Operations Group's flag ship jet, it will be obvious who's responsible for its well being to include systems for fuel, hydraulics, landing gear, the engine and the electrical avionics.

To earn such honors, Sanders received advanced training to recover aircraft, according to Lt. Col. Michael Miles, 33rd AMXS commander in charge of more than 90 Air Force maintainers supporting JSF flying operations.

Sanders attended the four-week cadre course at the 33rd FW hosted by Lockheed Martin contracted logistic support. Then, he went to Edwards Air Force Base, Calf., to learn skills like servicing struts and changing tires. The base was chosen for his temporary duty because it is where Air Force Material Command hosts F-35 developmental test missions.

Sanders transitioned from maintaining legacy aircraft like the F-15 to building a template for future international F-35 maintenance training. He is part of an integrated training team including Airmen, Sailors, Marines, contractors and coalition partner operators and maintainers. Once the training program for F-35 maintainers is fully operational, the 33rd FW will train 2,200 maintenance students annually.

Being knowledgeable in the tasks to become a dedicated aircraft supervisor will be essential. Sanders already proved he's up for the task. He was selected to brief the Air Force's top general on the F-135 engine, June 23.

"The opportunity to brief the Chief of Staff (of the Air Force) brought to light the tremendous exposure and importance this aircraft carries," the maintainer said. "I feel privileged to be one of the first maintainers on this new weapons system. I'm very excited to be a part of building the foundation for the F-35A program."

The young Airman explained his hands-on experience working F-35 aircraft and engine systems to the seasoned four-star because leadership knew they could count on him.

"He's been outstanding since he's been here," said Miles. "I have all the confidence in the world in him."