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Maintainers help the F-35A remain a ‘stealthy beast’

Tech. Sgt. Edmundo Pena, 388th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Flight, performs a low observable restoration on a F-35A Lightning II wing tip at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Oct. 3, 2019. The radar aborbent surface coatings on the F-35 help the aircraft survive in enemy air space. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

Tech. Sgt. Edmundo Pena, 388th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Flight, performs a low observable restoration on a F-35A Lightning II wing tip at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Oct. 3, 2019. The radar aborbent surface coatings on the F-35 help the aircraft survive in enemy air space. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

An F-35A begins to speed down the runway prior to take off from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, the evening of Aug. 20, 2019, as the active duty 388th and reserve 419th Fighter Wings conducted local night flying operations. The wings are required to train at night to maintain their readiness and all-weather capabilities. Increased flying also provides a valuable opportunity to evaluate aircraft maintenance resiliency and operational agility. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

An F-35A begins to speed down the runway prior to take off from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, the evening of Aug. 20, 2019, as the active duty 388th and reserve 419th Fighter Wings conducted local night flying operations. The wings are required to train at night to maintain their readiness and all-weather capabilities. Increased flying also provides a valuable opportunity to evaluate aircraft maintenance resiliency and operational agility. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

Tech. Sgt. Edmundo Pena, 388th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Flight, performs a low observable restoration on a F-35A Lightning II wing tip at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Oct. 3, 2019. The radar aborbent surface coatings on the F-35 help the aircraft survive in enemy air space. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

Tech. Sgt. Edmundo Pena, 388th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Flight, performs a low observable restoration on a F-35A Lightning II wing tip at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Oct. 3, 2019. The radar aborbent surface coatings on the F-35 help the aircraft survive in enemy air space. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah --

How do you make a 51-foot long, 35-foot wide fighter jet, with an engine that generates 43,000 pounds of thrust, vanish? You don’t. There’s no black magic that exists to make something that big disappear.

The F-35A Lightning II isn’t invisible, but it does have a “cloak,” which makes it very difficult to detect, track, or target by radar with surface to air missiles or enemy aircraft. The real term used to describe the cloak is “low observable” technology and it takes skilled Airmen to maintain.

“You can’t hit a target if you can’t get to it. And you can’t get to a target if you get shot down,” said Master Sgt. Francis Annett, 388th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication Flight NCOIC. “Because of the LO technology, the F-35A can fly missions most other aircraft cannot. We make sure our Airmen understand how important their job is. We teach the ‘why’ as much as the ‘how.’”

Several things combine to provide the F-35A’s stealth – the lines and contours of the aircraft’s exterior design, the composite panels and parts that make up the body, and the radar absorbent materiel that coats the entire jet. All of these contribute to deflecting or absorbing enemy radar and, combined with pilots’ tactics, help the F-35A survive in enemy air space.

During flight, the exterior paint or coating of any aircraft can get worn down from friction caused by weather, dust, bugs, and the normal movement of flight surfaces. The F-35A also has several panels that are frequently removed or opened on the flight line for routine maintenance, and there are more than 5,000 fasteners that keep body panels in place. All of these, when worn, can potentially limit the jets stealth capabilities.

The fabrication flight team inspects and evaluates the jets’ coatings, seams and panels after each flight, looking for anything that could lead to an increased radar signature, recording any damage and prioritizing repairs across the wing’s fleet.

At work in their shop, the LO technicians work in a team, hunched intently over a long table full of composite panels and rubber seals. They wear masks and gloves, and look more like sculptors or painters than fabricators. The old, heavy equipment used for cutting, pounding, bending and joining sheet metal for F-16 skins, lines the walls behind them, mostly unused. The machines a reminder of the difference between fourth and fifth generation technology.

Maintaining this radar absorbent coating on 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. It’s time consuming, but it’s vital to get it right, Annett said.

“I like that its detail oriented,” said Staff Sgt. Brandon Ladson, a low observable journeyman. “All the work that you put in really shows, any mistake you make, every good thing you do. It all shows in the final product.”

The active-duty 388th FW and Air Force Reserve 419th FW are the Air Force’s only combat-capable F-35 units, working side-by-side, maintaining the jets in a Total Force partnership that utilizes the strengths of both components.