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Gunnery Sgt. Matthew Smith, a maintainer with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 501, marshals in the first Marine variant F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighter to arrive at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Jan. 11.

Photo by Maj. Karen Roganov

Gunnery sergeant becomes first enlisted Marine to rev Lightning II engines

10 Apr 2013 | Lance Cpl. Andrea Cleopatra Dickerson

Gunnery Sgt. Matthew J. Smith recently became the aircraft mechanic qualified to turn the engine of an F-35B Lightning II.

 “Being the first enlisted guy to start the engine was awesome,” said Smith, the maintenance control staff noncommissioned officer in charge with Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501. “It was like being in a Transformer as they are transforming. I was worried at first because that is something that you don’t want to mess up, but after I got the engine going, everything was good to go.”

Originally, Smith trained and received qualifications as an AV-8B Harrier fixed-wing aircraft mechanic. He was also engine run qualified on that aircraft.

Training to become qualified on the aircraft is extensive, said Smith.

After being selected to take part in the F-35B program in 2009, Smith attended a Pratt and Whitney engine course offered in East Hartford, Conn., followed by a cadre course to help him prepare to take part in what was then a still-developing curriculum for F-35B mechanics.

In early 2012, Smith attended his new military occupational specialty school.

After completing the course successfully, he went to a two-week F-35 engine run course to become certified to start the newest fighter attack aircraft in the Corps’ inventory.

“This aircraft is like none other in the Marine Corps arsenal, and every day is a constant learning event.”

Although Smith’s primary mission is creating the squadron’s flight schedules, he assists 76 maintenance Marines with their day-to-day tasks from servicing hydraulic systems to engine removals.

“He can perform the aircraft checks that pilots do before their flights,” said Lt. Col. J. T. Bachmann, the squadron’s aviation maintenance officer. “We are more efficient thanks to him. He can perform mission-essential tasks we need done, freeing other personnel to support other critical roles.”

Bachmann said additional flexibility also creates learning opportunities.

“Gunnery Sgt. Smith is a valuable asset to the squadron,” said Bachman. “The more time he spends hands-on with the aircraft, the more he will continue to learn.”

Smith said he doesn’t take his responsibilities or his job lightly, especially since he joined the Corps’ F-35B program.

“The best part of my job is being able to work on the first 5th-generation fighter in the Marine Corps,” said Smith. “I feel privileged to have experienced this within my career.” 

VMFAT-501 is currently home to 118 Marines and Sailors.  At this time, the squadron boasts 13 qualified F-35B pilots. When the squadron re-designated in April 2010, the “Warlords,” assumed the lineage of predecessor VMFA-451, which saw action during World War II and Operation Desert Storm.

Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point