A Symphony of Flight: F-35 Flight Operations Center
An estimated 87,000 airplanes fly over the United States every day, with an average of 5,000 planes airborne at any given moment. But the average American rarely knows much about what goes on behind the scenes to ensure safe and efficient flight occurs every single day.
It takes three years from the beginning of the production process for an F-35 to be ready to take to the skies, but what about the day of the first flight? The many moving parts of daily operations can be described as nothing short of a symphony.
Left to Right: PFE team members Andy Smith, Ricky Roberts and Josh Jones.
Lockheed Martin Flight Operations at the Fort Worth, Texas, F-35 production facility is at the center of it all. They are given the responsibility to take a schedule developed by a joint team made up of leaders from multiple teams onsite, including the F-16 production & flight test team (the F-16 Fighting Falcon is produced in a different building on the same campus) and the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA), and coordinate all of the elements necessary for safe flight.
The process begins with a checklist to ensure the pilots for the mission are up to date on all their necessary currencies and qualifications. Pilots must meet and maintain a host of requirements, from ground training (life-support equipment, altitude chamber, medical screenings, and egress training) to flight training (periodic check rides, airborne training events involving instruments, and basic aircraft handling skills). They also must fly at least once every 45 days to maintain currency, since flying high-performance aircraft is demanding work that requires constant practice.
After the pilot clears all the pre-requisites for the flight, he or she then briefs with the other aircrew supporting the flight. This could be a chase plane, a target or other support aircraft. Once the crew brief is complete, the pilots make their way to the pilot flight equipment (PFE) area where they get ready to climb the ladder and strap in to the F-35 cockpit.
The PFE team plays an important role leading up to the day of the mission. Pilot life support gear is exactly that – the gear that supports and can potentially save a pilot’s life. Success begins with the proper cleaning, maintenance and inspection of their gear, which is a daily, weekly and monthly endeavor. If they do their jobs right, a pilot should be able to walk in, suit up, fly, and return without issue.
“A pilot’s gear is required to go through an inspection every 105 days with exception to the mask, which requires inspection every 30 days,” said Josh Jones, PFE team representative. “If we do our job correctly, the day of the flight, we simply wipe the mask and visors down first thing in the morning, and then just let the pilots know we are there if they need any support.”
"Weather" or Not
After a pilot has all of his flight gear on and is ready to walk, he stops at the flight ops desk for a last minute weather and air space brief with the team. A flight ops team member will brief the pilot on current weather conditions as they talk through what needs to happen in case of a divert scenario.
One of these flight ops team members, Gary Seales, has says his job doesn’t end when the pilot walks out the door; he is regularly checking weather patterns and air space to ensure a safe flight and landing.
Gary Seales regularly checks weather patterns and air space during flight.
“A pilot flying may be able to see 100 miles in front of them, but I am their eyes and ears that can see well beyond their sight and ensure they have the most up to date information about things that could affect their mission,” said Gary. “The weather in Texas can have sudden changes and some missions, like a company flight [the first flight a jet will ever take], have a lot of weather restrictions that I have to keep up with on a daily basis.”
The current pace of flight ops keeps the team busy, but they know when flights more than double in the next few years, it is going to be harder to manage airspace for all of the necessary F-35 flights. The team is already working on a plan to help overcome the challenges of the increased flight operations tempo.
Russ Odders speaks to a pilot in the Lockheed Martin Flight Operations Center.
“Creating new airspace for a faster tempo will allow more aircraft to operate on any given day,” said Russ Odders, Flight Operations Analyst. “It’s an idea we have and we are working with the Federal Aviation Administration to make it happen, but at the end of the day, they own the space in the sky.”
Once the jet lands, taxis to the hangar and shuts down, the pilot’s last stop of the mission is with the flight ops team. After a debriefing session with Gary and others on the team, the pilot steps into a “phone booth” (the PFE shop) to transform back into a surface dweller.
The comparison of the art of flight to that of a symphony orchestra is an accurate portrayal of the many moving pieces required to complete daily missions safely and effectively.