HILL AIR FORCE BASE — 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 July 17, 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 World 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 then.
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 fall. Fighter Wing spokesman Nathan Simmons said additional 419th personnel will convert to the F-35 as additional squadrons stand up at the base.
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, the 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.
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.