It was a historic day in Layton, Utah and FighterSweep was on hand to witness it! At approximately 1256 local time, the overhead pattern came alive as the first two combat-coded F-35A Lightning IIs arrived for bed-down at Hill Air Force Base.
The aircraft were flown in by Colonel Brad Lyons, the 388th Fighter Wing Commander, as well as Lieutenant Colonel Yosef Morris, the Director of Operations for the 34th Fighter Squadron.The jets were escorted in by a Block 40 F-16CM, flown by Colonel Bryan Radliff, the commander of the Air Force Reserve’s 419th Fighter Wing. Representing “Ops 1” for the Air Force, Hill will eventually be home to 72 examples of the 5th-Generation Joint Strike Fighter.
These two aircraft, tails 5071 and 5072, are both Block 3I jets, which provide initial warfighting capability. That includes data links, multi-ship sensor fusion ability, the updated Integrated Core Processor, and initial live weapon capacities.
In 2013, the Air Force selected Hill as the first operational base for the F-35, based on the strong community support, excellent airspace close by, the Total Force Integration with the 419th, and the fact the base had already been selected as the site for depot-level maintenance for the Air Force’s JSF variant. With the low-observable maintenance infrastructure already in place, it was an easy choice. Hill will received approximately two aircraft per month for the next four years, expecting to be full-up by 2019.
The 34th Fighter Squadron is the first Combat Air Forces (CAF) squadron to receive the F-35. Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George “Banzai” Watkins, the “Rude Rams” expect to reach IOC by the fall of next year. The F-35 has big shoes to fill; it was the first base to receive combat-coded F-16s in 1979.
“Today we are going to repeat history, but we get to turn the page to the F-35,” said Colonel Robert Battema, the 388th’s Vice Commander. “It’s truly a great day for us.”
Colonel Radliff’s reservists will start making the transtion to the F-35 later this year, and he expects to eventually have nearly forty pilots combat mission ready. The 419th has been a TFI partner with the 388th since 2007, offering increased flexibility for Team Hill. The longevity of the reservists brings a wealth of corporate knowledge to the flying units, balancing out the high turnover rate in the active duty squadrons.
The reservists, on average, have twelve years of experience–with about half of them coming from the ranks of active duty. Not only that, but the wing boasts a 95% retention rate. In other words, when the reserve pilots arrive at Hill, they stay on for the duration of their flying careers. In the past five years, the 419th has fulfilled more than 1,100 deployments for 80,000 days in more than twenty countries–totaling more than 2,500 flying hours.
“It’s hard to express exactly what I’m feeling right now,” Colonel Lyons said. “This is a new dawn for Hill Air Force Base.”
With the wealth of operational experience that Hill currently fields in both its active duty and reserve components, there is little doubt this new endeavor will enjoy the same level of success as it has with the Viper.