F-35A maintainers, special ops team up for forward refueling

Lt. Col. Maxwell Cover, assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, taxis during Forward Area Refueling Point training at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., Feb. 26, 2019. This was the first time FARP training was conducted by an MC-130J Commando II for the F-35A Lightning II aircraft as it expands its reach and capabilities. Photo by Staff Sgt. Luke Kitterman

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. – America’s most advanced aircraft integrated with a variant of one of its oldest and truest airframes this week to provide more combat flexibility to the Air Force.

For the first time, Airmen from the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah and Airmen from the 26th Special Tactics Squadron and the 27th Special Operation Logistics Readiness Squadron at Cannon AFB, trained and carried out a Forward Air Refueling Point operation from the MC-130J Commando II to the F-35A Lightning II.

During this forward refueling scenario, an MC-130J lands at a remote airfield secured and managed by Air Force combat controllers. The C-130 crew, made up of loadmasters and fuels troops quickly set up equipment and fuel lines, then transfer fuel from the MC-130J to other aircraft landing behind them – in this case, an F-35A.

The training is a building block in adaptive basing development. Adaptive basing is a key component to providing air power in highly-contested modern warfare. To succeed, Airmen from different platforms and different specialties must train to work together effectively, planners said.

“We’re really experienced at FARP operations with fourth-generation aircraft like the F-16 (Fighting Falcon) and the A-10 (Thunderbolt II) but this is the first time we’ve done it with the F-35,” said Maj. Meghan O’Rourke, an MC-130J combat systems officer with the 9th Special Operations Squadron and one of the organizers of the exercise.

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The 9th SOS has refueled F-22 Raptors and is traditionally a place where new operations are given a trial run, O’Rourke said.

Expanding FARP operations with the F-35A will provide commanders more options in a near-pear fight where other support may be limited.

“Setting up a FARP gives us flexibility in planning because we now have the capability to land in a remote location, refuel, potentially re-arm and go take the fight to the enemy, and the F-35 can bring a lot to the fight.” said Lt. Col. Matthew Olsen, director of operations for the 421st Fighter Squadron and one of the F-35 pilots who flew to Cannon AFB.

The training brought together pilots, maintainers, special operators and planners.

The maintenance footprint for the training was adaptive too. A small group of Blended Operational Lightning Technicians from the 388th Maintenance Group traveled to Cannon AFB to provide training and support to the special operations airmen.

“It’s been very valuable to interface with the refueling troops and special-ops guys,” said Master Sgt. Dantorrie Herring, 388th MXG. “A lot of lessons learned and we demonstrated that we can do this with a small group of BOLT Airmen.”

Instead of bringing a group of 12 F-35A maintainers, Herring brought three F-35 BOLTs who are trained in multiple aspects of maintenance. In scenarios like FARP operations, the BOLT program can reduce manpower by more than 65 percent.

“If you think about doing this ‘real-world,’ we want the smallest footprint we can have,” Herring said. “With adaptive basing and BOLT you don’t have to send the whole unit.”

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Lt. Col. Maxwell Cover, assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, taxis during Forward Area Refueling Point training at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., Feb. 26, 2019. This was the first time FARP training was conducted by an MC-130J Commando II for the F-35A Lightning II aircraft as it expands its reach and capabilities. Photo by Staff Sgt. Luke Kitterman