How to Keep a Stealthy F-35 Safe While on Public Display

F-35A Lightning II pilots pose for a photo in the US corral at the Paris Air Show June 20, 2017 at Le Bourget, France. Air Force photo by TSgt. Ryan Crane.

Le Bourget, France—The F-35A is the Air Force’s state-of-the art, highly expensive, fifth-generation strike fighter. How do you keep it safe at a Paris Air Show where tens of thousands of foreign government officials, international industry officials, and curious onlookers have easy access to jet on static display? By working closely with the show’s French hosts, following established security protocols, and reading and understanding the environment, according to the airmen responsible for keeping the F-35 secure in France this week.

US and French authorities held a series of planning and coordination meetings as details of what aircraft were coming to Paris were sorted out. Col. Justin Hickman, US Air Forces in Europe “Air Boss” for the Paris Air Show, said he and his team laid out their security concerns ahead of time and worked to ensure they were addressed.

Some preventive measures were obvious, such as the fact that the F-35 was ringed by two metal guard rail cordons, while nearby aircraft, such as a Spangdahlem F-16 and an Army Apache Longbow attack helicopter, were behind single fences. Jet blast barriers were set up behind the corral, offering some degree of protection in the direction of the air base’s perimeter. The goal, said Hickman, was for the crowd to be able to enjoy seeing an F-35 up close—but “from a safe distance.”

The team brought along its own dedicated security forces. MSgt. Roy Chavez, chief of US security at the DOD corral, said the defenders are able to tailor their presence to the threat. The airmen can move around the various aircraft in the DOD corral while remaining on the lookout for trouble. Security can be increased by simply pushing back the perimeter fencing for a larger “safe zone,” he said, noting you don’t necessarily have to bring over more personnel. Similar procedures are in place for the F-35’s daily move through the crowd from the static display corral to the hanger area, 700 meters away, for the day’s flying.

Both Chavez and Hickman are permanently assigned to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Ultimately, Hickman said, your “gut feel” helps determine what the exact security procedures are going to be, and the US works in close cooperation with the French to alleviate threats.

On June 19, the first day of the air show, a terrorist driving a car full of explosives rammed a police vehicle on the Champs Elysees. The terrorist later died, and no one else was injured in the attack, but visitors to the air show the next day saw an outer security perimeter manned by French personnel in BDUs and armed with rifles. This was the outermost of three French security rings visitors passed through before they could access the airfield.