USAF completes first operational rapid crew swap exercise with the F-35A

USAF maintenance personnel and pilots recently performed the first operational rapid crew swap exercise with the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) conventional variant.

During a rapid crew swap a pilot takes off, completes his or her mission, lands, and takes on fuel while another pilot takes over the cockpit of the same aircraft. This reduces the amount of required maintenance actions and the time required to generate new sorties by up to two hours, according to a USAF statement. The service said on 25 March that the rapid crew swap capability could add an extra sortie each day in the same time it currently takes to fly two sorties.

The USAF can perform rapid crew swaps with the F-35A due to the aircraft’s Prognostics Health Management (PHM) system, which reports the aircraft’s status to pilots and maintainers and tells them if there is an unsafe issue with the aircraft. If the F-35A lands with no issues, which the service calls Code-1, it can then shutdown the engine, swap crew, and confidently put the aircraft immediately back in the air without performing a full post-operation maintenance inspection. The USAF said this is a unique capability for a single-engine fighter.

Until now it was not safe to perform rapid crew swaps with legacy single engine fighters because a full post operation maintenance inspection was required when an aircraft engine is shut down completely. This includes running through checklists, visually inspecting the engine, aircraft structure, and systems, a common practice with legacy aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon.