by Mitch Shaw
Hilltop Times Correspondent
7/21/2015 - HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- The
jets won't arrive for another few months, but the first F-35 fighter
squadron has officially started work at Hill Air Force Base.
The 34th Fighter Squadron -- affectionately known as the Rude Rams --
was reactivated at Hill Friday afternoon, 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 and includes participation in conflicts from Vietnam and
the first Gulf War to Iraq and Afghanistan, post Sept. 11, 2001.
The squadron was mothballed as an F-16 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, current 388th commander and former commander of the
34th, 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, 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
The first group of F-35 maintainers, which will make up the 34th
Aircraft Maintenance Unit, have been at Hill 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 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 are in training,
and the first 419th pilot to fly the F-35 will beginning training this
When the F-35s begin to arrive at Hill, they'll be divided among three
fighter squadrons and flown and maintained by members of both the 388th
and its reserve component 419th Fighter Wing.
After the first jets arrive at Hill, the rest of the fleet will be
coming in on a staggered basis, spread through 2019. There will
eventually be a total of 72 F-35s at Hill, with approximately 35 to 40
pilots in each of the three fighter squadrons.
The jets will be delivered at a rate of just more than one per month
until August 2016. By then, Hill officials hope to have 15 jets 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 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
"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.