HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Just over five years ago at Hill Air Force Base, budget cuts killed one of the Air Force’s most historic fighter squadrons.
But the commander who presided over that temporary demise is bringing back the “Rude Rams.”
In a ceremony at Hill in mid-June, Col. David Lyons became the new commander of Hill’s 388th Fighter Wing. Lyons took the reins from Col. Lance Landrum, who fulfilled commander duties for the 1,500-person wing for the past two years. Landrum heads to the Pentagon, where he will serve as the director of Colonel Management.
For Lyons, his new position represents a homecoming steeped in redemption.
Lyons was commander of the 34th Fighter Squadron when it was deactivated in the summer of 2010. The squadron’s indefinite shutdown was a result of an Air Force-wide restructuring plan designed to save money. The plan called for the retirement of 259 aircraft, a total that included 112 F-15s, 138 F-16s and nine A-10s.
When the Rude Rams were shut down, Hill was also forced to give up 24 of its F-16s, reducing the base’s number of Fighting Falcons from 72 to 48.
But as the Air Force’s choice for the first operational F-35 wing, Hill’s fighter jet count will again move to 72 planes, which means the 34th is being reactivated as a fighter squadron.
“I was convinced that the 34th would come back as an F-35 squadron,” Lyons said. “Obviously, I have love for all of our fighter squadrons, but there is a special place in my heart for the Rude Rams.”
Lyons said much of that fondness has to do with the squadron’s rich military heritage.
According to a 2010 narrative written by base historian Aaron Clark, the 34th can be traced all the way back to World War II, when it was first activated on Oct. 15, 1944, at Seymour Johnson Field, North Carolina. The squadron flew P-47 Thunderbolts in combat operations over the Western Pacific in the latter days of the war.
The squadron’s next operation didn’t come until more than 20 years later, when it joined the fight in Vietnam in 1966. From 1966 to 1972, while assigned to George Air Force Base, California, the squadron played a critical role in the Vietnam conflict.
According to Clark’s report, the squadron first flew F-5 Thunderchiefs in Vietnam. One of the group’s pilots, Maj. Kenneth Blank, was the first pilot to shoot down a MiG-17, which he did in the north of Hanoi. The Rams then began a strategic bombing campaign that included hitting the Thai Ngyen Iron and Steel Complex, an important American target.
By early 1967, the 34th had logged 10,000 combat hours and hit multiple targets in the Dong Hoi area of North Vietnam. The unit was awarded the distinguished Presidential Unit Citation for its actions in Southeast Asia in 1967.
It was after the Vietnam conflict ended that the Rams were relocated to Hill, which happened in December 1975. Just four years later, the 34th became the first-ever fighter squadron to receive the new F-16 Fighting Falcon, which took the place of the F-4.
When the Gulf War started, the Rams were the first squadron to deploy in support of Operation Southern Watch, enforcing a no-fly zone in Iraq.
The group also played a significant role in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, post Sept. 11, 2001.
And the squadron wasn’t just relegated to military combat operations. It provided security for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and was the first active-duty Air Force squadron to deploy and fly missions into Latin America to stalk suspected narcotics-carrying aircraft.
The group’s final deployment came in May 2010 with a four-month mission at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
While he’s proud to be out front, as a steward of the 34th’s proud history, Lyons says the future weighs heavily on his mind.
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.
The first jet is scheduled to arrive at Hill in September, with the rest of the fleet coming in on a staggered basis, spread through 2019.
The jets will be delivered at a rate of slightly more than one per month until August 2016. By that time, the base hopes to have 15 jets on base and reach a status the Air Force calls “Initial Operational Capability,” which means Hill meets the minimum operational capabilities to use the jet for normal operations.
Lyons said the transition from the F-16 to the F-35 will likely present hurdles.
“It’s a new airplane with new technology and new ways to maintain it,” he said. “That’s going to present challenges.”
An Air Force-wide shortage of maintainers will also offer a test.
The base will transition its 4th Fighter Squadron, along with its 24 F-16s, early, in order to ensure there are enough maintainers for the F-35.
“(The maintainer shortage) is another challenge,” Lyons said. “It’s critical to get the manpower we need to bring on this new technology.”
Without offering an official endorsement, Lyons also spoke of the proposed expansion of the Utah Test and Training Range.
The Air Force is proposing to expand the Utah Test and Training Range by nearly 700,000 acres in the rural areas of Box Elder, Juab and Tooele counties, providing a buffer against encroachment from communities through natural expansion and allowing for more testing space for the F-35.
“I don’t want to get too far out of my lane here,” Lyons said. “But the (F-35) requires a lot of airspace to train for the unique mission sets we’ll be able to do, so that airspace is absolutely critical.”