‘Absolute Youngest’ Marine In The F-35 Test Force Shares His Experiences

Foxtrot Alpha // July 13, 2015

One of our readers, Dustin Gulley, was a U.S. Marine Corps Hornet airframe mechanic who made his way into the F-35 Integrated Test Force at the astonishingly young age of 20. He’s here to share his experiences wrenching on Hornets around the globe and getting up-close and personal with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as a young Marine with Foxtrot Alpha:

What made you want to join the USMC and how did you end up going to school to become an airframe mechanic on the F/A-18 Hornet?

“The honest truth? I didn’t want to write scholarship essays. I always look back at the morning I got the call from the recruiter with a bit of a chuckle. The phone was brought in to me at about noon on a Saturday. The man on the other side said ‘Mr. Gulley, would you be interested in joining the Marines?’ I replied ‘Be here at three.’

As to why I told the Recruiter that I wanted to be an aircraft mechanic, I’m really not sure. I had been a pretty sedentary child who was completely preoccupied with all the things you expect a kid to be doing, and my main interest was in IT. I hadn’t spent a whole lot of time spinning wrenches except to do oil changes and the occasional brake job. I suppose I just figured it would be cool to work on aircraft.

Later down the road in “A” school, Marines were allowed a wishlist of sorts for their platform preference, though anyone who has been a part of the armed forces knows that a wishlist is the epitome of just that. Getting your pick of the litter truly came down to academic performance and the needs of the Marine Corps.”

What goes into being trained to work on an F/A-18 Hornet?

“Well, your “A” school experience is mainly dependent on your Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) and the type of aircraft you’ll be working on. Rotory-wing guys went somewhere else. If you’re an airframer like me, you’re going to be spending time learning hydraulics and metalworking. If you’re an electrician, you’re going to be doing something completely different. At the end of my time in the schoolhouse at Pensacola, there was a practical application test called “Strand” where you would take that newly-acquired hydraulic knowledge to a malfunctioning dummy aircraft and just put it all out there.

I was very fortunate to receive F/A-18 Hornet orders, as they were the most in demand at the time. The instructors would always try to push you one way or the other depending on what platform they had been working on. Your time in “B” school is spent learning some of the specifics of your target platform. You learn your aircraft’s overall mission and what goes into maintaining it. Things such as strut servicing, how the hydraulics are set up, and what all those shiny buttons and knobs in the cockpit are for. Truthfully, the schoolhouses don’t do much along the lines of preparing you for what you’re about to walk into when you finally make it to the fleet. Some things can only be learned there.”

What was it like joining VMFA-251 (a USMC Hornet Squadron) as a fresh Lance Corporal with lots of new knowledge and little experience?

“It was exciting! I remember my first day on the job going by in a heartbeat and the sense of pride was overwhelming. In comparison to a lot of ground-side work, squadron life is very laid back, but not on the level that some might lead you to believe. We don’t have air conditioning 95% of the time, the chow halls still suck and we work just as hard as everyone else, if not harder. I spent most of my first couple of months playing gopher for the other guys while trying to pick up on as much knowledge as I possibly could. This is an environment where you either keep up or get left behind completely. I took every opportunity to get one-on-one instruction with the other guys and I feel like they respected me for that.

There’s a ton to do at your first squadron. Morning FOD walkdown, prep aircraft for ops, launches, general maintenance, post-flight/turn-around inspections, building qualifications and somehow all of the aircraft are in phase inspection at once and you’d better get them finished three days ago. You’re going to make some mistakes and sure, those mistakes are going to cost some money, but that’s how you learn to do what it is you were brought there to do. What’s amazing is that somehow inside of all that, you still find a way to make good your place in the unit and build amazing friendships that last a lifetime.”

Coming from the Hornet, which was designed in the 1970s, what was it like working on the state-of-the-art and stealthy F-35, the most advanced fighter in the world?

“Next-generation is an understatement when applied to F-35. Keep in mind that this is the perspective of a maintainer, because they never would let me fly the darn thing. There was not a moment when I wasn’t infatuated with some detail of its construction, mission, or engineering. The maintainability factor is absolutely huge in comparison to platforms such as the F/A-18 or the AV-8B. In many cases, the aircraft seems as though it was designed with end-user practicality in mind, as opposed to the Hornet’s “need to replace a hydraulic pump? Great, remove all other things first” and the Harrier’s “engine replacement? That’s two wings coming off, baby!” Gone are the days of awful hi-torque fasteners that strip themselves out every time you look at them wrong. Behold, hex tips!

The Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant, the F-35B, is just ridiculously cool, and even more so in person. The sheer amount of power provided by the nozzle and lift fan boggles the mind, and I might argue that short takeoff ops are even more fun to watch than vertical takeoffs. The thing finds its way off the ground in a shorter distance than I would have ever believed if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. During the low-power built-in tests, the nozzle will rotate down and if you’re standing anywhere inside the vicinity of the wing tips when it drops, you’re probably going to get very intimate with the pavement very quickly.

Maintainability is just a huge improvement, hands down, and its going to offset the cost in a way that some may have not yet considered. Now I’m a totally biased party, I can’t really think of many drawbacks in the design, at least none that are immediately evident to me as a mechanic. Sure, we had a few issues, but all were resolved without major incident during my tenure. There was a concern at one point regarding the C variant’s arresting gear possibly over-stressing the airframe during a carrier landing or field arrestment, but that’s been cleared up to my knowledge.

It may also be worth noting that in a traditional fleet squadron, all personnel find themselves working on all of the aircraft at once. At the Integrated Task Force, each individual aircraft had its own maintenance team, generally consisting of a Supervisor and at least one specialized individual per system. I preferred that maintenance paradigm, as it allowed me to get to know each aircraft individually. Knowing what sort of mission testing each one is doing at a given time makes it so much easier to fill in on other maintenance teams when you run out of work or are down a man. We had a total of five aircraft during my tenure, four STOVL (B model) and one CV (C model carrier variant).

ALIS, the Automatic Logistics Information System, is an amazing concept that has the potential to drastically reduce administrative time, as well as improve troubleshooting accuracy, but it wasn’t complete during my time at the ITF. What I do know of it however, is that it is a great improvement upon NALCOMIS, which is the fleet’s current maintenance tracking system.”

Read the full interview from Foxtrot Alpha.