NAS Lemoore prepares for F-35 arrival, more F/A-18s

By Mark D. Faram, Staff writer

NAVAL AIR STATION LEMOORE, Calif. — The Navy’s transition to the F-35C Lightning II — coupled with the U.S. military’s shift to the Pacific — is helping to turn this somewhat remote air station into the largest strike fighter hub in the Navy.

The transformation began last fall when the service announced that Lemoore beat out NAS EL Centro, California, for the honor of hosting U.S. Pacific Fleet’s F-35 aircraft.

That put the base into high gear, planning for the arrival of this new aircraft and the first squadron.

Strike Fighter Squadron 101, the F-35 fleet replacement squadron, is expected to relocate to Lemoore from it’s current home at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, beginning in January 2017. The squadron comprises about 1,000 people.

But the shift to the Pacific also convinced Navy planners to move two F/A-18 squadrons, VFA-136 and VFA-11, from Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, in June 2016 and January 2017, respectively, bringing even more aircraft, personnel and family members to the base.

When the plus-up is complete, Lemoore will have nearly 60 percent of Navy strike fighter airpower, and another 3,000 personnel, a megabase worthy of the “master jet base” moniker it’s had since it was designed in the 1950s.

VFA-101 is in the process of gaining aircraft and training instructor pilots and maintainers. But, it won’t begin to transition fleet squadrons into the F-35C until a year its arrival in California.

“Right now, January 2017 is the target, that’s the plan right now for the arrival of VFA-101,” said. Cmdr. Brian “Spool” Douglass, the F-35C project officer on the staff of Strike Fighter Wing, Pacific.

“They’ll be standing up as an organization for about a year before they begin to take an existing squadron on this base and transition it to the F-35C.”

That process, too is expected to take about a year to accomplish, though as more squadrons shift from F/A-18s to the F-35C, they hope to shave some time off the transition phase.

The plan is to take Lemoore from a base of 15 squadrons of F/A-18 C’s, E’s and F’s to a base of 17 F-35C and F/A-18E/F squadrons sometime between 2028 and 2030, each with 10 aircraft. Eventually, VFA-101 will have 30 aircraft for its training and transition mission.

The first F-35 fleet squadron is slated to start training with VFA-101 in January 2018. That’s slated to be the Warhawks of VFA-97, Douglass said.

“Right now the dart is being thrown at VFA-97 for that first transition, but that’s just the plan today, and I’ve seen it change multiple times since I’ve been here over the past three years,” he said. “There are a lot of things, such as changes in deployment schedules and other factors, that could have an impact on that.”

“How quickly we’re able to get to that state, depends on how quickly the Navy is able to purchase the aircraft,” Douglass said.

The “end state” squadron lineup will see seven F-35C squadrons, six F/A-18F squadrons and four F/A-18E squadrons.

Already, Douglass and planners from the base have been working on getting a home ready for VFA-101 when it arrives in a year and a half.

“We’ve plotted out military construction over the next 10 years, it’s going to be a constant drumbeat of construction as our F-35 footprint grows on this base,” he said.

They’ll begin by reworking an existing hangar, Hangar 5, to be VFA-101’s initial base of operations.

“Our hangars are built on a module concept, where each squadron gets its own module,” Douglass said. So four squadrons will eventually move into it.

“That is through design now and out through contractor bid, and we anticipate, hopefully, shovels hitting the dirt here on July 1,” Douglass said.

Next year, they’ll begin rehab on the remaining three modules of Hangar 5, work that’s going to take an additional two years to complete.

“Once that’s done, the FRS and our first transitioning fleet squadron will take up residence in Hangar 5.

In about 2018, Lemoore will begin construction on what will become Hangar 6, a totally new hangar that will take about two years to build.

One thing is for sure, an F-35C squadron will have what Douglass called a few more enlisted maintainers around. Currently, an F/A-18E squadron has anywhere between 226 and 234 sailors assigned. An F-35C squadron will include 245 to 250 sailors.

Most of the extra maintainers are due to the planned creation of a completely new maintenance shop for each F-35C squadron. It will only be responsible for maintaining the outside of the aircraft and will be manned by aviation structural mechanics.

The skin of the F-35C is designed to deflect radar and make it tougher to see by potential enemies. This stealth capability is so important that there will be a complete new shop in the squadron, manned by sailors with special training and skills to maintain it.

“The low observability of of the F-35C is considered a weapons platform and that’s going to be a huge mind shift for us to treat the exterior of the airplane and the maintenance with such care,” Douglass said. “It’s not that we don’t care for the exterior of our aircraft today, but this is on a totally different level, and we want to keep it pristine, because that’s part of the weapons capability. That’s why we procured this airplane.”

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