Look at the skies above Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa and twice daily you’ll get a glimpse of U.S. Air Force F-35 fighter jets taking off, only to land several hours later. Watch the base itself and you’ll see maintainers working round the clock to ensure the service’s newest fighter jets are ready to go.
It’s been about three months since more than 300 airmen relocated from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to Japan for the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing model’s first-ever stint in the Asia-Pacific. The first of 12 jets arrived at Kadena in late October for a six-month deployment — the longest period the 34th Fighter Squadron has spent away from home.
Although the Lockheed Martin-manufactured jets haven’t made a lot of news since their arrival in Japan, the pace of operations has been relentless.
“We’re approaching 1,000 flight hours and 500 sorties, we’ll probably have that here in the next week and a half or two weeks,” Master Sgt. Brian Sarafin, F-35A production superintendent for the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, told Defense News in a Jan. 24 interview.
On any given day, the 12 F-35s at Kadena could be expected to make anywhere from 12 to 14 total sorties, meaning every plane must be quickly inspected and repaired so it is ready to fly.
“They have been doing a lot of flying with the F-15s here stationed at Kadena. That’s almost a daily thing ― that they will meet up with F-15s from here,” Sarafin said. “And I believe that they’ve also met up with the [Japan Air Self-Defense Force] airplanes a time or two as well.”
About 20 F-35A pilots relocated to Okinawa, and they fly about two to three times a week, said Capt. Ryan Huber, the 34th Fighter Squadron’s flight commander. Most of those hours are spent training, but pilots also participate in exercises like Vigilant Ace, held in South Korea in December, where operators got to practice skills such as enemy infiltration and precision strike with U.S. military and South Korean jets.
“Some of my flights included operations with our USAF F-15C Eagle counterparts and Republic of Korea F-16s,” he said. “The experience was enlightening, as it allowed us to learn the intricacies of each other’s operating capabilities to further strengthen what we bring as a whole to the fight.”
A normal workweek for maintainers goes like this: Every morning, usually from Monday to Friday, about eight jets will fly a mission of about one to two hours in length. A morning shift of maintainers will be on hand to help launch and recover those jets, as well as to turn them for the second set of flights — usually flown by four to six F-35s — later that afternoon, Sarafin said.
A second “swing shift” of maintainers will come in before the second round of sorties have landed, and once those aircraft are back on the ground, they will begin necessary repairs to get the jets back into the air the following day. That work is continued by a third shift of maintainers, who clock in at about midnight.
“It’s a big revolving door every single day to make sure our aircraft are ready,” Sarafin said.
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