Marines Do First-of-its-Kind Maintenance Test with F-35B on Ship

An F-35B aboard the USS America, off the coast of San Diego. Source: USS America Public Affairs.An F-35B aboard the USS America, off the coast of San Diego. Source: USS America Public Affairs.

To prove that the Marines’ new 5th-generation fighter could undergo maintenance during an at-sea deployment, air crew aboard the amphibious assault ship USS America took one of the aircraft apart–and put it back together again. In what officials said was a new milestone for the program, an F-35B underwent an at-sea power module and engine swap. In that procedure, the Pratt & Whitney/ Rolls Royce engine and power module were removed from the aircraft, a labor-intensive and involved process, and a replacement system was installed.

Aboard amphibious ships, which have less maneuvering room than aircraft carriers, it’s key that maintainers know how to complete such complex jobs. They did the Nov. 9 swap thanks to Marines from Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1, out of Yuma, Arizona, who developed a special engine removal and replacement process just for the F-35 at sea, according to a release from the USS America.

“Any time [the Navy or Marine Corps] acquire new aircraft, they are concurrently going to acquire the training resources that it takes to operate and maintain the jet,” Mark Schroeder, maintenance and logistics department head for the F-35 Patuxent River Integrated Task Force, said in a statement. “Marine maintainers who come to work on the F-35B have typically transferred out of an AV-8B Harrier or F/A-18 Hornet squadron as those aircraft wind down and migrate out of the fleet. The people here now will be the ones to bring the new generation of aircraft to the Marine Corps.”

The full process of conducting the engine swap took a week, officials said, with maintainers methodically documenting every step and entering every action in the Autonomic Logistic Information System, or ALIS, the special maintenance software designed for the F-35. Ultimately, the full test went as planned, according to the release.

“Testing the ability to swap entire engines or engine components at sea is vital, as this is the last opportunity for the Marine Corps to perform these shipboard maintenance actions in a sterile test environment before they deploy with the F-35B in 2018,” Lt. Col. Richard Rusnok, VMX-1 F-35B detachment officer-in-charge said in a statement.”

During this short-term deployment, the team not only proved the engine maintenance construct, but also gained critical hands-on experience dealing with the confined space and deck motion aboard ship — something that cannot be replicated ashore.”

The seven F-35Bs aboard the USS America will continue to undergo testing at sea for another week. This final round of developmental tests comes just two months before the first operational squadron of F-35Bs, VMFA-121, is set to deploy forward permanently to Japan. It will deploy in the Pacific aboard the USS Wasp in early 2018.

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Hope Hodge Seck
Hope Hodge Seck is a reporter at Military.com. She can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.