GRAF IGNATIEVO AIR BASE, Bulgaria — Two F-35A Lightning IIs and about 20 supporting Airmen arrived at Graf Ignatievo Air Base April 28 from Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England.
The F-35As are participating in the first training deployment to Europe. The aircraft and total force Airmen are from the 34th Fighter Squadron, 388th Fighter Wing, and the Air Force Reserve’s 466th Fighter Squadron, 419th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.
“The United States and Bulgaria have a strong and enduring relationship,” said Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, the Third Air Force commander, during a press event after the arrival. “We routinely train through joint and combined initiatives like Operation Atlantic Resolve and in flying exercises like Thracian Eagle, Thracian Summer and Thracian Star. Our commitment to Bulgaria is but an example of our unwavering support to all allied nations.”
Similar to the aircraft’s visit to Estonia on April 25, this training deployment has been planned for some time and was conducted in close coordination with Bulgarian allies. It gives F-35A pilots the opportunity to engage in familiarization training within the European theater while reassuring allies and partners of U.S. dedication to the enduring peace and stability of the region.
“I have to say that for us, this makes us very proud,” said Maj. Gen. Tsanko Stoykov, the Bulgarian Air Force commander. “Our efforts have been appreciated and we are trusted as a reliable ally and it immensely contributes to the development of the bilateral relations between our two counties and our two air forces.”
This is the first overseas flying training deployment of the U.S. Air Force’s F-35As. The deployment provides support to bolster the security of NATO allies and partners in Europe while demonstrating the U.S. commitment to regional and global security.
“We are grateful to our Bulgarian friends for their support in making today possible,” Clark said. “Your cooperation helps prepare the F-35 for its invaluable contribution to our alliance. We look forward to many more years of our shared commitment and partnership.”
This training deployment signifies an important milestone and natural progression of the Joint Strike Fighter Program, allowing the U.S. to further demonstrate the operational capabilities of the aircraft. It also assists in refining the beddown requirements for the F-35A at RAF Lakenheath in order to enhance Europe’s ability to host the future capabilities of the Air Force and coalition team. Also, it helps to integrate with NATO’s infrastructure and enhance fifth-generation aircraft interoperability.
The aircraft and Airmen began arriving in Europe on April 15, and are scheduled to remain in Bulgaria for a brief period of time before returning to RAF Lakenheath to continue their training deployment.
The KC-135 is from 459th Air Refueling Wing, Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, and is providing refueling support for the deployment to Bulgaria.