HILL AIR FORCE BASE — While the 34th Fighter Squadron activation is next week, many of the Airmen who will maintain the 388th Fighter Wing’s F-35s are working behind the scenes preparing for one of the Air Force’s most historic milestones.
The initial cadre of experienced F-35 maintainers has been on site for two months, building Hill’s first F-35 aircraft maintenance unit from scratch. These hand-picked cadre members have experience in all F-35 specialties and have come to Hill from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; Nellis AFB, Nevada; Edwards AFB, California., and Luke AFB, Arizona, to stand up the 34th AMU.
The unit’s lead production superintendent, Master Sgt. Scott Foster, said the experience of this initial group is making the transition much easier.
“We have the most cumulative experience in-house of any F-35 stand-up to date,” he said.
That experience has had significant impact on missions inside and outside of the 388th FW, as the cadre has provided tech data verification and valuable maintenance input to Hill’s Ogden Air Logistics Complex, which performs aircraft modifications and depot-level maintenance for the F-35. In addition, the group has provided F-35 maintenance expertise to the 388th’s F-35 Program Integration Office, particularly during visits by the Air Staff’s Site Activation Task Force, the party responsible for making critical decisions on Hill’s F-35 beddown.
The bulk of the work these maintainers are doing now is administrative — but the preparation is critical to the F-35 transition. The primary focus for both pilots and maintainers is training. Currently there are eight Airmen attending crew chief and avionics transition training at Luke AFB, completing on-the-job training and F-35 academics.
The Airmen in the AMU are writing detailed programs that outline how the unit will maintain the F-35 in both peace and wartime scenarios. They’ve built the annual flying hour program, which outlines what they’ll be able to support over the next fiscal year, and that plan must account for all training, off-station sorties, contingency scenarios, local flying and any major modifications to the aircraft — a big task to accomplish five months prior to receiving the first jet.
The third piece to the puzzle is accumulating the equipment they’ll need to maintain the F-35. More than 3,000 items will come to Hill from Lockheed Martin, and each one must be inspected and accounted for in the Automated Logistics Information System. ALIS is the operations and maintenance system for data collection and analysis that ties together F-35 operational planning and health management of the fleet.
This workload is in addition to making sure the facility is properly furnished, equipped and ready for the roughly 140 Airmen the unit will house by the time first aircraft arrival occurs in September. By August of next year, approximately 280 Airmen will be on the books for the 34th AMU.
The 34th will have five F-35 qualified pilots during the first month of flying, with only two F-35s on station, allowing those initial pilots to maximize their flying time. The 388th FW is putting pilots into the training pipeline quickly at Eglin and Luke. By the end of January, the wing will have 10 F-35 qualified pilots, including wing commander Col. David B. Lyons who finished his training earlier this year.
Lt. Col. George Watkins, who will assume command of the 34th FS on July 17, said the transition from the F-16 to F-35 should be a smooth one.
“The training was incredible. There are a lot of similarities to the F-16, but obviously it’s much more technologically advanced. Its leaps and bounds above an F-16,” Watkins said. “But for an F-16 pilot to sit in the seat and have the side stick and the fly-by wire, it’s pretty comfortable to make that transition.”
Watkins and the small group of F-35 pilots currently on station will be traveling once a month to Luke, Eglin and Nellis AFBs to keep pilot proficiency until the 388th receives its F-35s.
Pilots and maintenance experts from Hill’s Air Force Reserve 419th Fighter Wing will also fly and maintain the F-35 alongside the 34th FS and 34th AMU. The initial cadre of F-35 maintainers from the 419th FW are currently in training, and the first 419th pilot to fly the F-35 starts training this fall. Additional 419th personnel will convert to the F-35 as additional squadrons stand up at Hill. The 388th and 419th FWs have shared Hill’s operational F-16 mission since 2007 and are associated as part of the Air Force Total Force Integration initiative, which seeks to capitalize on the strengths of each component.
The 34th Fighter Squadron has an extremely rich history. After many contributions in major U.S. conflicts, the Rams were relocated to Hill AFB on Dec. 8, 1975, where they became the first fighter squadron to receive the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Fittingly, the 34th FS commander who furled the Rams flag in 2010 has just assumed command of the 388th Fighter Wing.
The 34th FS activation ceremony will occur July 17 at Hill AFB.