Navy Starts First Assemblies of F-35 Lift Fan Clutch

A fully assembled lift fan clutch for the F-35B Lightning II aircraft awaits packaging at Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE). FRCE personnel became the first within the Department of Defense (DoD) to perform a successful assembly of this component outside of Rolls Royce’s LiftWorks facility in Indianapolis. (Image: NAVAIR)

The U.S. Navy's Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE) achieved its first assembly of a lift fan clutch for the F-35B Lightning II aircraft, becoming the first Department of Defense (DoD) agency to perform this task outside of the original equipment manufacturer's (OEM) facility.

Depot officials said the establishment of the lift fan clutch capability bolsters increasing requirements for F-35B maintenance and repair as the number of operational aircraft in the Fleet continues to rise.

“Even though it seems as if the F-35 has been around for a while, it’s still very new,” said FRCE F-35 Capability Establishment Lead Fred LeBrun. “It’s still ramping up. Flight hours are increasing. More countries are buying them. This multiplication effect places increased demands on the supply system for components.”

The F-35B is the variant of the Joint Strike Fighter designed for use by U.S. Marine Corps, as well as F-35 international partners in the United Kingdom and Italy. The F-35B is capable of short take-offs and vertical landings to enable air power projection from amphibious ships, aircraft carriers and expeditionary airfields.

According to LeBrun, the F-35B’s lift system enables these unique take-off and landing capabilities. The lift fan clutch is one of the components that make up the aircraft’s lift system.

“It’s a key part of the lift system, so this is going to be critical for the depot to have this capability,” said LeBrun.

FRCE declared capability on the lift fan clutch earlier this year. Declaring capability on a component means that the depot has all the required materiel, support equipment, and staffing in order to test and repair items so they may be sent back to the fleet for use.

LeBrun said the process of declaring capability begins years before the component ever arrives at the depot and involves intense collaboration with a team of experts.

“You're constantly refining requirements working with the manufacturer, engineers, logisticians, and industrial engineering technicians,” said LeBrun. “We develop the requirements, we go through acquisition phases and we bring all necessary tooling into the depot. We then set up the training events and train the artisans.”

The lift fan clutch for the F-35B is produced and assembled by the original manufacturer, Rolls Royce, at their LiftWorks facility in Indianapolis. FRCE’s assembly marked the first time this was performed outside of LiftWorks.

Steven Murray, an aircraft engine mechanic at the depot, was part of the team handpicked to stand up the lift fan clutch capability.

“We traveled to Indianapolis and went to the Rolls Royce facility there,” said Murray. “We could see the way that they do things. We had our industrial engineering technicians with us so they could tailor things to fit the way we do things here at the depot. Then, it was extensive training here – evolutions of disassembly and assembly to ensure we are doing it right.”

Dakota Martin, another aircraft engine mechanic chosen for the team, said he was surprised by the complexity involved in assembling the lift fan clutch.

“The training was intense,” said Martin. “I've worked on other platforms, which has made the learning process to this a little bit easier. But this clutch is like nothing we've ever had put our hands on before.”

According to LeBrun, the procedures required when assembling the lift fan clutch are far more complex than those required with typical aviation components.

“This is an extremely difficult part to work because of the processes,” said LeBrun. “For comparison, a component maintenance manual for a less complicated component might run 500 to 1,000 pages. With this clutch, you have a 10,000 page document with modules attached that the artisan has to follow. The complication level on this component is right up there with producing an engine on the aircraft.”

In addition to the difficulty of the work procedures, the FRCE team also had to transfer the industry processes they learned at Rolls Royce into the depot while ensuring compliance with Navy and depot instructions and policies.

“It sounds straightforward, but in reality, we had to go through every single aspect down to the most miniscule details,” said Murray. “It’s an extremely intensive process to declare that we could do it here. To take something that is done in industry and adapt it to the way we do things here at the depot, it requires a lot more effort than most people would think.”

Those efforts also required innovative thinking and teamwork from the FRCE team. According to Martin, the team needed to set up work areas for a component that had never been worked on within the depot. They had to devise solutions to issues related to tooling and support equipment.

“Mr. Murray fabricated two different types of equipment support tools and a stand in order to minimize the risk of any damage to components during assembly,” said Martin. “Things like that took a lot of communicating with industrial engineering technicians who assist and provide us with any tools or equipment that might be required.”

Murray said that although the process was challenging, the team took inspiration from FRCE’s past, knowing that artisans and engineers working on then-new platforms had to blaze new ground as well.

“Mr. Martin and I were joking that there were guys doing this same kind of thing with the Harrier 40 years ago,” said Murray. “They were doing the same thing we are doing now – and it all worked out. We thought it would be kind of cool to be thought of like those guys when that time comes and it’s just normal business for things like this clutch to flow through here.”

The FRCE team’s hard work paid off Aug. 22 when they packed up a fully assembled F-35B lift fan clutch.

“We now have the ability to not only provide the warfighter with the clutches they need, we have the capability to fix them right here at the depot,” said Murray. “This makes things much faster and more efficient for the units. I am happy to be part of this and proud to provide this support to the warfighter.”

LeBrun said this milestone marks a continuation of FRCE’s expanding support of the F-35 Lightning II aircraft, which also includes F-35B vertical lift fan testing and processing facilities scheduled to come online in early 2024.

“I'm very proud of the team,” said LeBrun. “It takes years of hard work to do all of this. This was a huge undertaking which energizes our lift system support and pushes us into the future.”