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Engine team sets up shop for F135 test cells

Tony Holt checks the control system for functionality while an F101 engine awaits testing in one of two T-9 test Cells at Tinker AFB. (Air Force photo by Kelly White)

Tony Holt checks the control system for functionality while an F101 engine awaits testing in one of two T-9 test Cells at Tinker AFB. (Air Force photo by Kelly White)

Two T-9 Test Cells at Tinker AFB test the F135 engine of the F-35 fighter jet, as well as other engines, such as the F101 and the F108. The test cells were dismantled and transported from Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., and Aviano Air Base, Italy, by contractors and reconstructed here at Tinker, saving the government approximately $30 million.

Two T-9 Test Cells at Tinker AFB test the F135 engine of the F-35 fighter jet, as well as other engines, such as the F101 and the F108. The test cells were dismantled and transported from Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., and Aviano Air Base, Italy, by contractors and reconstructed here at Tinker, saving the government approximately $30 million.

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Two unassuming structures sit in Tinker's industrial area. To most passing by, they might resemble large, awkwardly shaped sheds, but in reality they were built and modified to harness the Air Force's most powerful fighter engine: the F135.

The F135 powers the F-35, the newest fifth-generation fighter. The engine can produce 40,000 pounds of thrust and consume up to 90,000 pounds of fuel per hour. Finding a suitable facility to handle these enormous performance capabilities challenged the T-9 Test Cell Activation Team, which was tasked with determining what type of structures could withstand such forces.

The T-9 Test Cell Activation Team was composed of members of the 76th Propulsion Maintenance Group, one of the five groups that form the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex. A core responsibility of 76th PMXG, the only group of its kind within the Air Force, is refurbishing and testing engines.

The 76th PMXG works in concert with the other groups of the complex -- 76th Aircraft Maintenance Group, 76th Commodities Maintenance Group, 76th Maintenance Support Group, and the 76th Software Maintenance Group -- to ensure all engines are meeting standards before they're returned to service. The complex certifies the performance of each engine by putting it through its paces in a test cell. This includes running the engine from idle all the way up to maximum thrust.

The T-9 Test Cell Activation Team was charged with choosing what type of test cell could handle the monstrosity of the F135. After the project commenced in the spring of 2010, the team concluded either a new building would need to be built or 76th PMXG could use existing T-9s, a type of mobile testing cell. As suggested by the team's name, the T-9s were chosen. But this presented even greater challenges.

T-9s are technically categorized as equipment and can be relocated if necessary. The team scoured the Air Force and was fortunate to find two unused T-9s, but they were at Cannon AFB, NM, and Aviano AB, Italy. After calculating and comparing the costs of constructing a new test structure versus reusing these T-9s, the team discovered they could save money by hiring a contractor to break down, transport, and then rebuild the T-9s at Tinker. It's estimated that the team saved the Air Force $30 million.

The T-9s had to be modified to handle the unique requirements of the F135, such as a new lubrication system, but the team was able to meet each new challenge that popped up. Additionally, 76th PMXG expects to test other engines in the T-9s, like the F101 (B-1) and F108 (KC-135). These efforts did not go unnoticed. The T-9 Test Cell Activation Team won Team of the Quarter (Cat 8) for the 76th Propulsion Maintenance Group and the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex.

The F135 has already run in the Cannon T-9 Test Cell and will begin officially certifying engines later this year. The T-9 Test Cell Activation Team included: Arlie Abbot, Kevin Altsman, Jack Bower, Travis Chan, Gary French, Adam Giddens, Harvey Hand, James Hightower, Tony Holt, Mason Hopkins, David Jamison, Steve Johnson, Kevin Lambert, Tara Mason, Brad McCampbell, David Morris, Ron Morris, Jeff Muralt, Burt Renard, and Lt Josh Shepard, as well as support from David Hughes from the 76th Software Maintenance Group.