SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
When it comes to getting jets in the air, whether its legacy or fifth generation, there is no airpower without ground power.
A shortage of aircraft maintainers on the ground the past several years has posed challenges to meet the Air Force’s basic mission. But Sheppard Air Force Base’s Aircraft Maintenance University is working to change that by getting more maintenance Airmen through training and into the field.
Col. Michael Donahue II, commander of the 82nd Training Group and Aircraft Maintenance University, said there was an initial surge of Airmen training in aircraft career fields, but that increase of students in the pipeline has leveled off. That won’t remain the case in the future as maintainers will still be needed to keep legacy aircraft such as the B-52, F-16 and C-130, for example, flying and as new aircraft life the F-35 and KC-46 enter service.
“Our legacy aircraft are going to be around longer than we originally thought they might be, so we’re going to need those maintainers to maintain those legacy aircraft,” he said. “Our inventory of F-35s is increasing, so we’re going to need maintainers – both cross-flow maintainers and new-accessioned maintainers – to maintain that new fleet of aircraft.”
Lt. Gen. John Cooper, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for logistics, engineering and force protection, indicated Nov. 15 at the annual Logistics Officer Association Symposium in Washington, D.C., that Sheppard’s efforts are already making an impact on the shortage of maintainers.
“We were 4,000 maintainers short,” he said. “We’ve grown about 6,000 maintainers and we’re going to close the gap here at the end of this year.
“But as more F-35s come in and we don’t retire anything, we’re going to need more maintainers.”
Donahue said that while more maintainers per plane are required to keep legacy aircraft flying, that concept has changed for F-35 flightline maintenance. He said three career fields – crew chiefs, avionics and weapons – will service the fifth-generation fighter on the flightline with back shop support for the various other components that make up the jet.
Other airframes are also experimenting with flightline maintenance concepts.
Donahue said Sheppard is ready for the next Airman in Training surge in aircraft maintenance career fields. He said they have the capacity to handle a larger student population and renovation of a 362nd Training Squadron dormitory is underway that will increase the number of beds available.
“We’re ready for it,” he said. “We’re postured for it.”
Looking to the future, Donahue said a new logistics officer course will start up at Sheppard and an analysis is taking place to determine if Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, or Sheppard is the most cost effective site for F-35 maintenance training. Training for F-35 maintainers is currently done at Eglin.
That analysis will be completed in the summer of 2018.