Meet Two F-35 Engineers Who Specialize in Stealth

Meet Two F-35 Engineers who Specialize in Stealth

Made from more than 20,000 individual components, the F-35 Lightning II undergoes an incredible evolutionary process throughout its two year production life cycle. From its simple beginnings as carefully crafted metal and composite skins to its final form as the world’s most advanced fighter, the Lightning II is a product of countless hours of work and cutting edge technology.

The last stop for each plane on the production line is Aircraft Final Finishes (AFF). AFF may be last, but it’s arguably one of the most important steps in the production process.  The work done here is key to ensuring the F-35’s stealth, radar absorbing capability—and in turn, keeping pilots safe and virtually undetectable.

Specializing in Stealth

For both Darren John and Kelly Sansom, playing an active role in the final stage of F-35 production is both thrilling and laden with responsibility. As the production manager in AFF, Darren oversees all operations throughout the final finishing process. With years of experience painting helicopters and coating the F-22, Darren’s passion for planes date back to his time as a Marine.

“I’ve loved aircraft ever since I was in the Marine Corps. Any time you can be on the cutting edge of something, it’s exciting,” he said. “I have been very fortunate in that I’ve gotten to see the evolution of stealth. Before, it was stealth—but now, it is really stealthy and much easier to work on and maintain.”

As a supervisor of the teams responsible for painting the aircraft and operating robots to coat certain sections of the jet, Kelly’s favorite part of working in AFF is getting a firsthand look at the transition of the plane in just a few short weeks.

“I like seeing an unfinished aircraft roll in. Then, you give it a couple of weeks in this building and our team turns it around. Just sitting in the bay when it is almost finished, it looks as if it’s ready to go Mach 1 right out the door,” she said.

F-35 Aircraft Final Finishes

The Human Element

The process of coating the F-35 is one of great finesse and refinement. It consists of several stages: sanding, priming, spraying precise layers of paint, meticulous touch-ups and final stenciling.

In today’s world of increased automation, the use of robots for these tasks is commonplace. However, even on the world’s most technologically advanced aircraft, the role of the robots is far overshadowed by the human element. According to Kelly, approximately 85 percent of the work in AFF is done by hand. The rest of the work is completed by robots that are operated by her team.

“The robot is one of our milestones and one of our finishers. But from the time that very first panel is put on, we are building fit panels, filling seams, doing hot dots and applying boots. All of this is done by hand—there’s no automation in that,” Darren said. 

Innovation is Key

A key to the F-35’s success is its limitless technological boundaries, which facilitate constant innovation and propels our global defense strategy toward a successful future. Countless materials and coatings have been developed to fit the custom needs of the highly sophisticated aircraft, and AFF is no exception.

“For the F-35, innovation to me is synonymous with imagination. You have to imagine something as possible, and then innovation brings it forward. You imagine the F-35 can perform certain tasks, and then to perform those you have to create technology, chemicals and materials to make it possible,” Kelly said. “Innovation is all of that: trying to make it how you imagined it to be.”

“I am extremely proud of the growth that we have seen,” Darren adds. “Take for example, the last two and a half years—the progression of quality, the field findings, what our customer is giving us back—it has just been a lot of positive feedback.”

When all is said and done, the success of the F-35 is dependent on the capable minds of those who work on it every single day.

“To talk about where I see [this program] going: it’s absolutely endless. When you get a group of minds like we have here who are working toward a team goal, it’s really almost boundless what we can do,” Darren said.

“There’s a lot of design, a lot of integration.  In doing so, you open doors for future imagination and innovations—bigger and brighter things,” Kelly said.

Learn more about the F-35's stealth capabilities.

August 7, 2014