F-35s to hit base in waves

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HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Like a kid at Christmas, officials from Hill Air Force Base are counting down the days until the F-35 arrives.

But unlike at Christmas, it will take those officials four years to unwrap all of their gifts.

As the Air Force’s handpicked home for the first operational F-35 wing, Hill is scheduled to receive 72 F-35s — to be divided among three fighter squadrons and flown and maintained by members of the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings.

The first F-35 arrival target is slated for this fall, but don’t expect a grand arrival of 72 jets on the same day, or even the same month.

Col. Lance Landrum, commander of the 388th, said that just one jet will arrive initially, and the rest of the fleet will continue to come to Hill on a staggered basis, spread out through 2019.

Landrum said that on average, the base will be delivered slightly more than one jet per month until late  2016. By late summer of next year, the base hopes to have 15 jets in place in order to reach what the Air Force calls “Initial Operational Capability,” which essentially means Hill has met the minimum operational capabilities to use the jet for normal operations.

Landrum said the rates of arrival are expected to pick up after the first year, with the full fleet of 72 F-35s at Hill before the end of 2019. In that same time frame, the last of Hill current lineup of 48 F-16s will also be gone from the base.

The wing will get its initial group of pilots from F-35 test and training units at Eglin AFB, Florida; Luke AFB, Arizona; and Nellis AFB, Nevada, while also gaining F-35 qualified pilots from other fighter wings, and retraining some F-16 pilots currently in-house.

In addition to adding qualified F-35 maintainers, Hill will likely transition more than 100 legacy fighter technicians to F-35 work within the first year of operations. The base will gain roughly 475 new employees, both active duty and civilian during the transition to the F-35.

The Department of Defense is asking Congress for nearly $11 billion in fiscal year 2016 to continue research and development of the F-35 and acquire 57 new jets.

Manufactured by Lockheed Martin, the Air Force’s F-35A is a fifth-generation fighter aircraft planned to be the Air Force’s main strike aircraft through the first half of the 21st century. The multi-role fighter is expected to eventually replace the service’s entire F-16 and A-10 fleets.