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.”

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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.

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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?

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“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.”

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What is it like to maintain a USMC F/A-18 Hornet?

“The Hornet can be a persnickety animal and any maintainer will swear to you that they have minds of their own. They remain a fantastic multi-role aircraft which seem equally happy being bomb trucks or fighters. The undeniable issue is that they’re getting old. With that age comes maintenance issues and with those maintenance issues come irritable men and women who have to deal with them. It doesn’t come without some redeeming qualities however.

The Hornet is engineered to be aerodynamically unstable. The flight controls are actually working to keep the aircraft flying rather than simply guiding it, which is what makes it so maneuverable. There are pitfalls here as well, chief among them being the active leading edge, which is an absolute chore to maintain and must be constantly monitored. I feel as though while the F/A-18 has aged gracefully and performed every action we’ve asked of it, it is growing obsolete. We don’t need bleeding-edge air-to-air performance in a bomb truck anymore. We have other platforms dedicated to that purpose.

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One of the great things about Marine aviation is our relationship with our Navy counterparts. Maintenance across our shared platform is standardized, so we have the unique ability to work alongside sailors without any major issues aside from some good-natured “Squid” and “Jarhead” ribbing. There are some differences between Marine and Navy squadron structure, but they’re not so big that we can’t coexist like we do at VMFAT-101 (a USMC Hornet Fleet Replenishment Squadron that trains both Navy and Marine personnel). Shoot, my “B” school roommate was a Petty Officer 3.”

You grabbed another guy’s orders and jetted off to Japan on a whim to join VMFA(AW)-242 out of MCAS Iwakuni. What was it like suddenly joining ‘the tip of the spear’ in a totally foreign country?

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“I was at NAF El Centro, CA with VMFA-251 supporting exercise Mojave Viper in 2008 when another Marine received these orders to MCAS Iwakuni. He was in the process of getting married at the time and was really freaked out by the whole thing, so I stepped up to take his place. I took a month of leave immediately following the exercise and just took off to Japan. I was an 18-year-old kid with two seabags and this weird talking English-to-Japanese translator toy that my mom got me at a thrift store, alone crossing the Pacific.

I remember getting off the plane in Tokyo’s Narita airport and walking around for an hour or so before I found another person who would speak English to me and finally realized that I needed to be on a bus to the Haneda Airport where I could get on my connection to Hiroshima. There was a Japanese girl waiting for me there who dragged me straight past security and practically threw me into the gate. One “arigato” later, I was on my way to Hiroshima, where I was absolutely elated to find Marines who were NOT expecting me.

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There was a long orientation process at Iwakuni before I officially attached to VMFA(AW)-242. Fortunately, one of my dear friends from my previous squadron arrived about a week behind me and at that point I wasn’t alone in it all.

From there, it didn’t take long to realize that the “Bats” are unlike any other squadron in the fleet. They are easily the most operationally ready squadron there is, due to the fact that they have a ton of outstanding people who are willing to tear themselves down every single day in order to build the aircraft up. That said, 10-12 hour days were not uncommon for us there, and weekends were at times a rare treat. Detachments were constant, with folks heading all over Southeast Asia in support of various exercises. We once detached as a squadron back to the U.S. In support of exercise Lava Viper at MCB Kaneohe Bay and Mojave Viper at MCAS Miramar. I was also part of a small detachment to South Korea at one point, which turned out to be pretty awful as far as weather was concerned. The humidity there is just insane.

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Americans in Japan are generally pretty well-received overall. Commanders like to tell horror stories about messed up things that Marines do when left to their own devices, but the fact is that it isn’t at all the norm, and the Japanese completely understand that. The result is highly restricted liberty for junior enlisted, while turning a blind eye to senior enlisted and junior officer shenanigans. I digress, however it wasn’t uncommon to have a young Japanese man flip you the bird because he saw it on American television or something and figured it was a greeting. So many are beyond friendly and America would do well to take a few cues from that culture. An entire society on the honor system.

I feel as though in the grand scheme of things, my time at -251 turned out to be training for the big game at -242. I wasn’t with -251 long enough to fully appreciate the intricate differences between A/C and D variants aside from the super-obvious aft cockpit. I’m thankful for all of the experience gained there, and all the great people I met along the way.”

In 2010, at just 20 years old, you received orders to join one of the Navy’s elite test squadrons, VX-23. This would seem like a fairy tale billet considering the work that VX-23 does and your rank and experience.

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“None of us were quite sure what to make of it. We just figured that I was being sent to VX-23 to work on the Hornet chase aircraft (which would still have been an honor!). I executed the orders and upon arriving at NAS Patuxent River I found out that I would be working with the celebrity itself, the F-35 Lightning II, as the absolute youngest individual in the program. It feels good to think that maybe somewhere along the line, someone looked at me and thought that I would be the right guy to help represent the Marine Corps at the Integrated Test Force (ITF).”

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?

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“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.

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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.

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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.”

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Do you see the F-35 meeting the expectations of the USMC?

“Only time will tell, but at the present juncture, I feel as though the Navy and Marine Corps will be absolutely justified in their decision to move forward with this platform. I’m very impressed with the aircraft from my own perspective, but it helps to remember that I wasn’t doing the same type of maintenance as I was on Hornets due to F-35 being entirely new. Things just weren’t breaking like they do on legacy platforms.

Folks look at the word ‘affordable’ on the official patch and laugh, but they fail to see what I see. Lightning II shares part of its cost with the F-22, as many systems are either similar or direct carryover. The aircraft stands to replace multiple legacy platforms in the Department of the Navy alone.

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I can possibly see the LO coating being a maintenance time-sink and squadrons could respond to that by applying it on a per-mission basis to save on costs. I don’t see where its absolutely necessary during training sorties, so on and so forth, except perhaps in air-to-air training. This aircraft was already a flier the day I first laid my hands on it. We just worked kinks out, and begun adding things to the package.

With F-35 reaching operational capability this summer, we’ve got a lot to look forward to and even more to learn. I can only hope that the world will begin to accept it as I do. This is a flexible aircraft that can be exactly what we need it to be at a given time and that’s part of the problem in the public’s perception. We think we need it to be everything all at once. The truth is that we don’t.

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Don’t dismiss it, as much as you may want to- this is the world’s most advanced aerial weapons system, and it still has plenty of tricks up its sleeve.”

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What was being part of the elite flight test community like?

“I found the environment to be the complete opposite of what I was used to in the fleet. I had to remind myself more than a few times to dial my temper back and hold onto my cool. The aircrew are some of the ballsiest guys I’ve ever met and some of the friendliest too. I’d never before had a Colonel come out to shoot the breeze with me (a Corporal) while I was smoking a cigarette (I’ve since quit. Don’t smoke, mmkay?) and then tell me to “relax” and “have a seat.” There’s a mutual respect among all parties that I’ve never seen matched anywhere, ever. It wasn’t always about what you were wearing on your collar. Sometimes it was enough just being there.

I’ve noticed that when I mention to folks that I worked in F-35 Flight Test, one of two things happen: They either look at me with a blank stare because to them, an F-35 could just have easily been a food processor, or they assume that I’m some kind of crazy airplane Wizard of Oz and start asking me questions about what goes on “behind the curtain.” The fact is, I don’t think its that interesting. Sure, the men and women there are some of the best mechanics and troubleshooters that the world has to offer, but to me, the experience is kind of sterile. Most of what we’re up to back there is the post-flight, pre-flight and turnaround inspections that you would expect, except the Flight Test community pays so much extra attention to the minute details.

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An incredible amount of time is spent doing regression testing so we can be absolutely sure of what to expect of the aircraft when in operation. We also pay special attention to what I refer to as ‘fleet maintainability.’ To provide an example, I was once removing the panel for the nose Distributed Aperture camera and noticed that the rigid coolant line only allowed the panel to travel an inch or so, which didn’t allow me to get my hand inside to operate the disconnects. It did end up taking something like 5 hours to remove, which is absolutely unheard of. We wrote that up and took a change request to engineering. I believe that line is now flexible.”

What was the culture like inside the integrated test team during what was one of the most tumultuous periods of any defense program ever?

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“Believe it or not, everyone remained cool and completely centered on the task at hand. We were (and are) dead set on proving the media wrong, and our work reflected that. There was absolutely no question inside that facility that we and our aircraft would be just fine and every single individual supported that. That’s what you need on a project of this magnitude and that’s exactly what we had. Lockheed Martin actually ran the facility and we as military were treated as if we were part of the family. Never alienated or left out. We worked together, and we succeeded together.”

What could the Marine Corps do to be a more effective and capable force?

“On the social aspect, I have little interest in the tattoo policy that some might expect me to talk about given my age. I do feel as though General Amos was completely out of line suggesting that the barracks need to be lined with security cameras in order to maintain discipline, and I sincerely hope that the new Commandant will rethink that policy. Don’t make your junior Marines feel as though they’ve been imprisoned by the country that they’ve sworn to protect, simply for swearing to protect it. Let Marines be Marines, and if they really screw up, do make them aware of it. You wouldn’t want them if they were anything less.”

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Now that you have left active duty, what are your plans? Any words of advice you would like to give young people looking at a career in the Marine Corps?

“Unfortunately, the post-USMC job market hasn’t exactly been as kind to me as I was hoping. I currently maintain the website and do IT work as well as some customer service for a small engine parts dealer. I would very much like to remain in the aviation field in some way shape or form long term, but am currently having a bit of trouble starting my civilian career. I miss it every day.

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To those young men and women considering a career in the USMC, I already admire you for even giving it a second thought. Too many people out there today have some excuse, they’re too afraid or they saw Full Metal Jacket once and it was scary, or maybe they just think they’re above it. If you’re still reading, know this: It won’t be easy. It will be downright hard work, but you will be a better human being for having done it. It will be some of the most fulfilling work you ever do.”

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes:

“Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. The Marines don’t have that problem.” - Ronald Reagan

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Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.

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