HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah –The Air Force’s first combat-coded F-35A Lightning II wing is sending aircraft to the Air Force’s newest F-35A wing to help speed their stand-up.
Today, four F-35A Lightning IIs from Hill’s 388th Fighter Wing took off on a four-hour flight across the Pacific Northwest for Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. They will become part of the 354th Fighter Wing’s inventory for the next two months.
“From our experience here, we know that when you’re standing up a new program, every day is critical.” said Col. Steven Behmer, 388th Fighter Wing commander. “By loaning them these four airplanes, we hope it helps fast-forward their ability to train and bring more capability to the Air Force as a whole.”
The Hill aircraft join the first two F-35As Lockheed Martin delivered to Eielson last week. Eielson is scheduled to receive two or three F-35s per month from the factory until they reach a total of 54 aircraft in two squadrons by early 2022.
The loan, which the operations and maintenance groups at both wings have been planning for a while, is a welcomed boost.
“We’re in the initial stages of F-35 operations here, and right now I’ve got more pilots than aircraft,” said Col. David Skalicky, 354th Operations Group commander. “We’ve been going TDY to get the sorties and hours we need, but COVID-19 put an end to that. So, the timing of this loan couldn’t be better.”
While the pilots need the aircraft to fly four-ship combat training sorties, the maintainers also need hands-on training time. The extra aircraft will allow the groups to better prioritize those opportunities.
“In any new mission startup you’ve got a high demand for training in ops, maintenance and mission support,” said Col. Matthew Powell, 354th Maintenance Group commander. “These extra aircraft will help us get both the flying training and dedicated maintenance training for our newer crew chiefs, avionics and weapons technicians.”
The synergy built into the F-35’s maintenance systems allowed the 388th FW maintainers to look across their current fleet and select four aircraft that were not likely to require any routine maintenance downtime, said Col. Michael Miles, 388th Maintenance Group commander. The jets are also close in production to the jets Eielson will receive from the factory, so they will have the same parts and components in supply.
Providing aircraft isn’t the only (or even the most important) support that Hill has provided to Eielson – those are people – experienced maintainers from the 388th who have been added to the cadre in the 354th MXG.
“These folks are familiar with the unique requirements of a fifth-generation airplane. Everything we’ve learned as an Air Force, from 2015 to now, both the good and the bad, have helped us plan and shape and prepare for what we need to do here,” Powell said. “And they are also coming from a combat-coded perspective at Hill, which is different from training and testing bases.”
Once Eielson’s F-35A standup is complete, Alaska will be an even more robust training environment for the Air Force.
“We’re getting the benefit in the short term from this aircraft loan, but in the long term, this is going to enable us to give back to Hill and the rest of the F-35 community. We’ve got a rare training airspace and a range with some of the most high-tech threat emitters. We’ve got the space you need to have to be able to effectively train with fifth-generation aircraft,” Skalicky said. “We’ve got in-house aggressors here and Air National Guard tankers. At Elmendorf we’ve got F-22s and AWACS. We’ve got everything you need in Alaska to train for that fight of the future.”
The 388th FW’s work got the Air Force to initial operational capability with the F-35A, and with this jet loan, Hill is playing a large part in another milestone before the Air Force can declare full operational capability, said Skalicky.
“Our vision as the first combat-coded maintenance group has been owning the future and shaping the future, and this effort is in line with that,” Miles said. “It is a win for us to help them get in the fight faster, and to no longer be the only combat-coded F-35A unit. In the long term this provides us a brother in arms, who is going to take the fight to the enemy with us.”