EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE — When Col. Mark Fluker arrived in 2009 to help set up maintenance operations for the military’s newest and most expensive fighter jet, he had a staff of only nine people.
The entire 33rd Fighter Wing, in fact, had only 60 people, mostly high-level command staff.
They were tasked with building the F-35 program from the ground up. When Fluker arrived, the now state-of-the-art airplane hangars weren’t just empty, they didn’t exist. A lone I-beam had been put in place.
Today, the wing has grown to 1,500 people. As commander of maintenance operations, Fluker oversees about 390 maintainers who work on a fleet of 22 F-35s, the largest in the world.
On Friday, Fluker, 51, will step down from his post, his first move toward retirement this summer after 30 years in the air force.
Navy Capt. Lance Massey, the maintenance group’s deputy commander, will take over.
Fluker’s years at the forefront of putting the new F-35 into action have been the highlight of his career, he said.
“This has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said Wednesday. “There is no other place I’d rather be in the Air Force than right here.”
Building a program from scratch had its challenges.
Fluker was rushed to Eglin in August 2009 to serve as deputy commander of maintenance in advance of the arrival of the F-35s. That didn’t come for more than two years because of cost overruns and performance problems.
“It was very frustrating, but it turned out it was probably a good thing, all said and done,” he said.
The team was able to work through a lot of problems before the first aircraft arrived.
They pored over newly developed maintenance manuals and sent back corrections that would make the procedures safer and more efficient.
Several maintainers were shipped off to test units to learn about the jets.
They made improvements to the hangar and built a tire and wheel repair shop.
Finally, in July 2011, the first F-35 touched down at Eglin. They were ready.
Seventh months later, in March 2012, the jet took to the sky.
In the nine months since, the 33rd has been able to fly more than 1,000 hours in the F-35, said Col. Andrew Toth, the wing’s commander.
“This is a commendable achievement that could not have been accomplished without (Col. Fluker’s) unwavering dedication and leadership,” Toth said.
Maintenance for those first flights took great leadership and responsibility on behalf of everyone working to service the planes, including the newer staff sergeants and senior airmen, Fluker said.
“I am immensely proud of those guys, down to the youngest one,” he said. “They have really proven how professional they are.”
He said some of the younger guys were given a high level of responsibility that they might not have gotten in other air force jobs because they were working with such a new aircraft.
They are charged with maintaining a $150 million jet, the world’s most expensive fighter. That comes with the need to report to high-ranking officials on maintenance issues and all the challenges they face, Fluker said.
“I’ve got a 19 year-old standing tall and briefing and telling a general all about the airplane,” Fluker said. “Every time I see it, it just makes me proud.”
The maintainers are the often unsung heroes of the fighter jet. No pilot could take to the sky without them, Fluker said.
Every flight requires eight to nine maintainers to work about five-and-a-half hours to prepare an F-35 for takeoff. That’s if nothing goes wrong.
Using several complicated computer systems, they check for discrepancies and make sure every system is working properly. They walk around the airplane to look for aberrations and leaks, check gauges and tire pressure, and replace parts or refill fluids.
Then the plane is service ready, but not yet set for takeoff. Another round of checks is conducted with the pilot in the cockpit. As a final precaution, they roll the plane forward to check the underside of the tires.
“Then we go launch that airplane,” Fluker said.
One highlight for Fluker was when the group designed its own training procedure to certify maintainers to do their own engine runs. Now they don’t have to call a pilot in to power up the plane to check if a repair they made did the trick.
“Nobody else in the Air Force does that,” he said.
The training center at Eglin should start graduating maintainers next January. Lt. Gen. Christopher Bodgan, the F-35 program director, said recently that Eglin will remain the “center of the universe” for the jet’s maintenance training.
Toth said Fluker’s greatest accomplishment was helping bring a fledgling program to fruition.
“When Col. Fluker arrived over three years ago, what you see here around the 33rd Fighter Wing — in terms of personnel, structures and F-35 aircraft — was only a vision,” he said. “His greatest feat was helping make that vision a concrete reality.”
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Lauren Sage Reinlie at 850-315-4440 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRnwfdn.