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Hill's F-16s to remain until 2018

Lt. Col. Michael Meyer, 421st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander, deployed from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, performs pre-flight checks on an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Oct. 30, 2015. Airmen assigned to the 421st FS, known as the “Black Widows,” arrived here Oct. 28, 2015 in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and NATO’s Resolute Support mission. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys/Released)

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HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- With the arrival of the F-35, it's been a given that the F-16's nearly 40-year legacy at Hill Air Force Base would come to an end.

But the Air Force is saying that ending won't come until 2018.

On Feb. 12, the Air Force released the "force structure" plan for its fleet of aircraft, a reshuffling of assets that comes as a result of the president's proposed 2017 budget, which came out a few days prior.

The plan calls for Hill to keep its fleet of 54 F-16 Fighting Falcons until sometime in fiscal year 2018. The F-16 release plan coincides with the F-35 beddown process at Hill, as the base is scheduled to receive its full allotment of 72 Lightning IIs by 2019.

The F-16 will eventually be supplanted by the F-35, but the Air Force Secretary's office says some F-16s will be transferred to training sites to help speed up the rate at which pilots are trained -- a measure to help fill what the Air Force calls a critical fighter pilot shortage. According to the Air Force Personnel Center, the agency has 12,823 pilots.

The force structure plan also calls for the base to receive an additional 10 F-35s in 2017.

In a press release from the office of the Air Force Secretary, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III said the restructuring plan allows to "maintain vital fighter capacity as we transition to the F-35 and deal with a resurgent Russia and a protracted counter-terrorism war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria."

The plan also calls for the Air Force to maintain its current number of active-duty, guard and reserve personnel. The agency has approximately 317,000 active-duty Airmen and another approximately 175,000 in the guard and reserve.

When the F-16s do finally leave Hill, it will be a historic goodbye.

On Jan. 6, 1979, Hill's 388th Fighter Wing received its first F-16A, becoming the first fully operational F-16 Fighter Wing in the entire Air Force. In March 1981, the wing headed overseas for the first time, deploying to Norway.

Five years after the 388th received its first F-16, its reserve counterpart 419th Fighter Wing accepted their first jet, becoming the Air Force's first F-16 reserve wing.

During nearly 40 years at Hill, the jet supported Operation Desert Storm, the global war on terror in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with several other missions.

In late October, Hill's 421st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron sent its fleet of F-16s to Afghanistan, marking the last time a Hill Falcon will deploy.