HILL AIR FORCE BASE — In terms of combat, Hill Air Force Base’s dwindling fleet of F-16s has been out of commission for nearly 18 months.
The Air Force started to phase the iconic fighter jet out of action when the next-generation F-35 arrived at Hill in 2015.
At the end of that year, the 421st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron deployed to Afghanistan, marking the jet’s final combat mission out of Hill.
And while the old Fighting Falcon hasn’t stopped flying out of the base altogether, it will soon.
Last week, eight F-16s and more than 200 airmen from Hill’s 388th and 419th fighter wings deployed to Albacete Air Base in Spain, participating in a noncombat North Atlantic Treaty Organization training exercise.
Kari Tilton, 419th spokeswoman, said by the time the deployment is over on May 19, the F-16s will have flown out of the base for the final time.
“This is the last time the F-16 will deploy with the Hill designated ‘HL’ painted on its tail,” said 388th Maintenance Group commander Col. Michael Miles, in a press release.
The exercise, known as the Tactical Leadership Programme, is conducted annually and designed to increase NATO air defense capabilities by integrating several NATO-participating allies.
The two Hill fighter wings are working with air forces from 10 countries, according to the press release.
Each day, Hill F-16 pilots fly with 20 to 30 allied aircraft, fighting against a similar number of mock adversaries. Pilots and crews fly and fight with foreign aircraft in unfamiliar environments, learning to overcome differences in language and flying techniques.
The final flights are the last chapter in a Northern Utah history that started in the late 1970s.
In 1979, the 388th received its first F-16A and became the first fully operational F-16 Fighter Wing in the Air Force. In 1981, the fighter wing took the planes overseas for the first time on a mission to Norway. The 419th received its first jet in 1984 to become the Air Force’s first F-16 reserve wing.
Since those days, Hill F-16s have flown in Operation Desert Storm and deployed multiple times to Afghanistan and Iraq.
As the last remnants of Hill’s 40-year fighter fleet wrap up in Spain, the Air Force continues to send Hill’s F-16s to other bases to supplement fighter pilot training.
By the end of 2018, 45 F-16s will have left Hill, relocating to places like Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico and Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Any remaining pilots and maintainers will be moved to the base’s F-35 mission.
A steady and ongoing build-up has supplied Hill with 20 F-35s so far. The base will eventually be home to 78 aircraft and will stand up three operational squadrons by the end of 2019.
A small number of Hill’s F-35s and accompanying support crew are also deployed for an international exercise, stationed at Royal Air Force Lakenheath in England for NATO’s European Reassurance Initiative.