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Lightning Keepers:

Partnering with Airmen to Sustain the Fleet


Nearly 80 years ago, Luke Air Force Base (AFB) – home to the largest fighter wing in the world - blossomed from an untouched barren desert land in Maricopa County just 15 miles west of downtown Phoenix, Arizona. Nestled amid the saguaro cacti-filled Hedgpeth Hills in the Sonoran Desert, the 56th Fighter Wing – host command at Luke AFB - boasts a decades-long legacy of training the finest U.S. Air Force (USAF) fighter pilots to ever take to the skies.

The 56th Fighter Wing is now the primary F-35A training base for the USAF as well as for eight international partner air forces and several other countries purchasing F-35s under Foreign Military Sales, or FMS, programs. For a fighter wing that continues to build the future of airpower and now with the most advanced 5th generation fighter in hand, their mission is critical to the defense of our nation.

When you think of fighter pilot training, your first thought may be to compare it to “Top Gun” or the movie stars you’ve seen piloting aircraft in famous film scenes. But have you ever wondered, who kept the aircraft flying? Who repaired the aircraft on the ground? Who ensured each aircraft was safe and ready to transcend the speed of sound and pull max Gs?

The simple answer – maintainers. But what most people don’t know is these individuals are more than just aircraft mechanics.

They are, by trade, maintainers who repair, inspect and modify the aircraft to ensure safe and effective functioning during flight operations. They are trusted advisors who let F-35 pilots know their aircraft is fit for flight. They are also analysts who constantly gather flight data to make informed decisions, ensuring a pilot’s safety is top of mind. Maintainers are critical to Luke AFB’s ecosystem, the Lockheed Martin Sustainment team and the pilot’s mission success. But how exactly do these men and women operate on a day-to-day basis?

Inside Look at Maintaining the F-35

Immersed in the 56th Fighter Wing’s rich culture of training excellence are Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft maintainers – known as Lightning Keepers - standing at attention to support their assigned unit’s mission. Working alongside their USAF counterparts, this experienced cadre of mechanics perform critical work on the ground to ensure mission readiness and exceptional aircraft performance.

The Lockheed Martin mechanics within the 62d Aircraft Maintenance Unit provide “Nose-to-Tail,” touch labor maintenance on the F-35, meaning that tasks traditionally performed by specialized mechanics — weapons, avionics, egress, propulsion, etc. — executed by a small group of F-35 maintainers trained across the entire platform. Their dedication to continuous improvements has created a team capable of maintaining an F-35 with streamlined manpower while achieving enhanced aircraft availability and mission readiness. Check out the below video for a glimpse into how maintainers effectively balance readiness, modernization and the safety of the pilot to ensure the F-35 can maintain its competitive advantage against our enemies.