HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah (AFNS) — The jets won’t arrive for another few months, but Hill Air Force Base activated its first F-35 Lightning II fighter squadron during a ceremony here July 17.
The 34th Fighter Squadron — affectionately known as the Rude Rams — was reactivated, marking the beginning of the F-35’s combat era for both the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings. The fighter squadron is a historic one, with a past that can be traced back to Word War II, which included participation in conflicts from Vietnam and the first Gulf War to Iraq and Afghanistan, post 9/11.
The squadron was mothballed as an F-16 Fighting Falcon unit in 2010 as part of an Air Force restructuring plan to retire planes and save money, but it returns to accommodate the F-16’s replacement, becoming the first operational Air Force unit to fly combat-coded F-35s.
Col. David B. Lyons, the current 388th FW commander and former commander of the 34th FS, said the reactivation is one of the highlights of his career. He led the squadron when it was deactivated in 2010.
“This has got to be one of the finest days of my military career,” he said. “To see this squadron shut down in 2010 was heartbreaking, but somebody, somewhere had the good sense to bring it back to duty.”
Lt. Col. George Watkins, the new commander of the squadron, said that while the first operational F-35 is not slated to arrive at the base until September, the new squadron shouldn’t have trouble keeping busy until then.
The first group of F-35 maintainers, which will make up the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, have been at Hill AFB for two months, completing mostly administrative work critical to the upcoming aircraft transition.
Watkins said the Airmen have been writing programs on how the unit will maintain the F-35 in peace and wartime scenarios and have created a flying hours program that includes directives for training, off-station sorties, contingency scenarios, local flying and any major modifications to the aircraft.
“There (is) a lot of work to be done before we get that first jet,” Watkins said.
The initial group of F-35 maintainers from the 419th FW are in training, and the first 419th FW pilot to fly the F-35 will begin training this fall.
When the F-35s begin to arrive at Hill AFB, they’ll be divided among three fighter squadrons and flown and maintained by members of both the 388th FW and its Reserve component, the 419th FW.
“There are slated to be a total of 72 F-35s at Hill AFB by 2019, with approximately 35-40 pilots in each of the three fighter squadrons.
Hill officials hope to have 15 jets by August 2016 and reach a status known as “initial operational capability,” which means the fighter wings meet the minimum operational capabilities to use the jet for normal operations.”
The 34th FS is scheduled to have five qualified pilots during the first month of flying, taking turns in what will be two F-35s on base. The 388th FW is sending pilots through training at Eglin AFB, Florida, and Luke AFB, Arizona. By January 2016, the wing will have 10 pilots qualified to fly the F-35, including Watkins and Lyons, who both finished their training earlier this year.
The colonels answered to those who have criticized the F-35 program for its expense and apparent lack of performance. The most recent cost estimate for operating and supporting the F-35 fleet exceeds $1 trillion and a leaked internal brief written by a test pilot who was flying the F-35 during a January test run revealed the jet was losing dogfights to the F-16.
“Things aren’t perfect, but things are still in development and you can see the potential,” Lyons said, adding that the F-35 flies similarly to the F-16, but by fusing many different sensors together, makes the pilot’s job easier in the cockpit.
Fighter Wing Spokesman Nathan Simmons said that by the time the F-35 is in full operation at Hill in 2019, the 388th will have added more than 260 active-duty positions.