They’re off the assembly line and they’ve been in the air. Now final flight tests are the only hurdle to clear before the Air Force’s first two combat F-35s arrive in Utah.
The second of the two jets took its first flight earlier this month at manufacturer Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas aeronautics plant, following the first jet, which took to the skies a few days earlier.
Before they’re handed over to the government, Lockheed Martin pilots run the planes through a gamut of tests.
Nathan Simmons, 388th Fighter Wing spokesman, said that process is nearing completion and the jets’ wheels will soon be hitting the pavement on Hill’s runway.
“They have to go through a whole checklist of tests,” Simmons said. “And theoretically, any one of those could delay (the Hill arrival), but right now, all indications are things are going as planned.”
The pair of jets, tail numbered 5071 and 5072, represent the culmination of a nearly six-year process that will make Hill Air Force Base home to the Air Force’s first operational F-35 unit. Hill was selected for the post in December 2013 after a four year environmental process. Since then, the base has been preparing to house what will eventually be 72 Lightning IIs.
The arrival is slated for early September.
Ryan Breitkruetz, F-35 Senior Site Manager at Hill said, “It’s a very fluid moving target. Something as simple as the weather could impact the delivery.”
When they do arrive, the two new jets will be operated by Hill’s recently reactivated 34th Fighter Squadron. The squadron was shut down in 2010 as part of an Air Force cost savings measure that included retiring more than 130 F-16s, but it’s being brought back to support the F-35.
After September, the rest of Hill’s fleet of 72 will come in on a staggered basis spread out through 2019.
During the same time frame, Hill’s full lineup of 48 F-16s will phase out of the base. The F-35 will eventually replace the Department of Defense’s F-16 and A-10 fleets, serving as the department’s premier fighter plane through at least the first half of the 21st century.
After the arrival of the first jets, the F-35s will be delivered to Hill at a rate of just more than one per month until August 2019. Breitkruetz said the fighter squadron should reach “Initial Operational Capability,” which means it meets the minimum capabilities to use the jet for normal combat operations, between August and December of 2016.
Maintainers who will work on the new plane have been at Hill for nearly three months, completing mostly administrative work like creating maintenance and flying-hours programs. Pilots are in training, and the wing hopes to have 10 qualified to fly the F-35 by January.