The US 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 its stand-up, which marks a major milestone for the delivery and operational capability of the fifth-generation fighter.
Four F-35A Lightning IIs from Hill Air Force Base’s 388th Fighter Wing took off on a four-hour flight across the Pacific north-west for Eielson AFB, Alaska, on 27 April. They will become part of the 354th Fighter Wing’s inventory for the next two months.
The Hill AFB aircraft join the first two F-35As Lockheed Martin delivered to Eielson AFB last week. Eielson AFB 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.
Colonel Steven Behmer, 388th Fighter Wing commander, said, “From our experience here, we know that when you’re standing up a new program, every day is critical. 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 loan, which the operations and maintenance groups at both wings have been planning for a while, is a welcomed boost.
Colonel David Skalicky, 354th Operations Group commander added, “We’re in the initial stages of F-35 operations here, and right now I’ve got more pilots than aircraft. 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 prioritise those opportunities.
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 Colonel Michael Miles, 388th Maintenance Group commander.
The jets are also close in production to the jets Eielson AFB 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 AFB has provided to Eielson AFB – those are people – experienced maintainers from the 388th who have been added to the cadre in the 354th MXG.
Once Eielson AFB’s F-35A stand-up is complete, Alaska will be an even more robust training environment for the Air Force.
Col Skalicky added, “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 (AFB) 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. We’ve got in-house aggressors here and Air National Guard tankers. At Elmendorf (AFB) 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 AFB is playing a large part in another milestone before the Air Force can declare full operational capability, COL Skalicky said.
“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. 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,” Col Miles added.