This Air Force Base Is Using 1950s Tech to Give F-35 Pilots More Flight Time

An F-35 Lightning II pilot from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, waits to taxi onto the runway June 20, 2019, at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. (U.S. Air Force/Airman First Class Andrew Kobialka)
An F-35 Lightning II pilot from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, waits to taxi onto the runway June 20, 2019, at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. (U.S. Air Force/Airman First Class Andrew Kobialka)

The Air Force is turning to half-century-old refueling equipment to get its pilots off the flight lines and back up into the air as quickly as possible.

The U.S. Air Force has used hot refueling in recent years -- a technique that fuels up a plane while its engines are on -- in an effort to save time. Now the 366th Logistics Readiness Squadron, based at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, is the first Air Force unit to take hot-pit refueling old school.

The squadron, known as the 'Gunfighters,' began using a Type 1 hydrant system from the 1950s and hose cart from the 1970s to refuel F-35 Joint Strike Fighters that stop at the base, according to a service release.

The systems connect directly to 500,000-gallon tanks, refueling a plane in roughly 15 minutes without requiring its engines to be shut off, the release states.

"Mountain Home Air Force Base is proving that we can still fuel F-35 aircraft right off the production line with some of the oldest equipment at unheard-of turnaround times," Tech. Sgt. Zachary Kiniry, 366th LRS fuels service center noncommissioned officer, said in the release.

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Officials at the base said that by using the old system, logistics airmen can swap more aircraft in line to receive fuel faster. A standard refuel -- shutting an aircraft off, towing it in, and conducting an inspection -- can take up to two hours.

The airmen had previously used 6,000-gallon R-11 refueling trucks to hasten the job, but found the vehicles congested the flight line, which can be dangerous.

"This method is not time-efficient, ties up 50 percent of the base's R-11s and associated personnel and creates traffic on an active flightline that could pose a safety hazard," Kiniry said.

Meanwhile, the Type 1 system, although old, is the logical choice, he said.

"Our old equipment is persisting and performing up to the hot-pits gold standard of 13-minute turnarounds," Kiniry said in the release. "We have learned through continual improvement, experimentation and innovation how to enhance readiness and keep airmen safe, regardless of what tools we are given."

Other 'Hot Swap' Methods

Rethinking hot-pit refueling isn’t the only change underway. Multiple crews have in recent months discovered quicker ways to in and out of the fifth-generation stealth jet.

In March, maintainers and pilots from the 388th Fighter Wing out of Hill Air Force Base, Utah, started using rapid crew swaps, sometimes known as "hot swaps," to get pilots into the cockpit faster.

"During a rapid crew swap at Hill, the first pilot lands and takes fuel while the jet is running," Micah Garbarino, spokesman for the 388th, told Military.com earlier this year. "Then they shut down to swap pilots, and the second pilot cranks up and takes off."

The crews can also reverse that, he added, swapping pilots first with the second getting the fuel.

"This reduces the time it takes to get an aircraft in the air with a new pilot by two hours," Garbarino said. "This process is dependent on the aircraft landing Code 1 after the first flight, meaning no inflight issues were detected by the jet's Prognostics Health Management system."

The PHM, central to the aircraft's logistical analysis, reads the aircraft's data and can spot inefficiencies, reporting them back to pilots and maintainers evaluating the plane. A Code-1 landing means the aircraft hasn't recorded anything unsafe.

Having that system built into the jet allows the Hill crews to swap pilots and immediately launch another sortie, Garbarino said, rather than waiting on follow-on inspections.

"We call what we do here a 'rapid' crew swap because the engine is off," Garbarino said in an email. "What makes this a unique capability for a single-engine fighter is that normally whenever an aircraft shuts down, maintainers complete a full post-operation inspection."

In December, crews at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, started rapid seat swaps, but for training purposes only. The 63rd Fighter Squadron, for example, used the swaps to add additional sorties to the squadron’s squadron flying schedule.

"Night training for 16 students would traditionally require two weeks of dedicated night operations, resulting in offset sleep patterns, prolonged duty days and lost opportunities for other daytime training," 56th Fighter Wing spokeswoman Maj. Rebecca Heyse told Military.com.

"By capitalizing on the efficiency inherent to [rapid seat swaps], the 63rd Fighter Squadron and Aircraft Maintenance Unit was able to complete night training for 16 students as an add-on to normal operations with minimal impact to normal daily production."

Like Luke, Eglin Air Force Base, home to the 33rd Fighter Wing, does "hot swaps" for training purposes.

"We just happened to be the first to do them back in early 2018," said 1st Lt. Savannah Stephens, a spokeswoman for the wing. "It reduces the time it takes for us to get a new pilot in the air and by saving time, we're able to produce more sorties."

Crews at Hill are testing out the technique for real-world missions, too, Garbarino added, since the system produces more combat-ready aircraft. The Air Force calls this Integrated Combat Turns, or ICTs: the rapid re-arming and refueling of an aircraft slated to go up again for a real-world mission.

The service used ICTs during past conflicts on its A-10 Warthog close-support mission attack aircraft, according to a release.

"We've decided to bring these ICTs back because rapidly turning these aircraft will give us a competitive edge on our near-to-peer adversaries," Col. Barton Kenerson, 355th Maintenance Group commander at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, said in the release. "We realized over the years we've been fighting in the [air and space expeditionary force] construct that having this capability is something we need."

Like Davis-Monthan, Hill is "working toward implementing and perfecting practices like Integrated Combat Turns in the F-35A," Garbarino said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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