HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah —
Today marks two years since the Air Force declared Initial Operational Capability for the F-35A and the total force Airmen at Hill’s active duty 388th and reserve 419th Fighter Wings have been hard at work developing and demonstrating combat capability.
“We knew that when we achieved IOC two years ago, the hard work had just begun,” said Col. Michael Miles, 388th Maintenance Group commander. “We continue to push the program to better support the warfighter and push our fleet operations to learn the boundaries of the F-35 sortie generation capability.”
Maintainers have launched jets from the Utah and Nevada deserts, as far as Europe, Asia, and back again. Pilots have been honing their tactics, flying with and against fellow Airmen and allies, proving the multi-role stealth fighter’s lethality and survivability. At one point recently, they flew aircraft out of four worldwide locations on the same day.
Here’s a look back at a few of the biggest successes:
Red Flag 17-01 an “unfair fight”
The 388th and 419th deployed to Red Flag on Jan 20, 2017. During the three week exercise not a single planned sortie was lost due to a maintenance issue and the wings finished with a 20-1 “kill” ratio.
They flew alongside F-22 Raptors, as well as other fourth-generation U.S. and coalition aircraft from Australia and the United Kingdom. The F-35A was put to the test with combat scenarios that focused on the jet’s core capabilities – destroying enemy aircraft and anti-air defenses.
“I flew a mission the other day where our four-ship formation of F-35As destroyed five surface-to-air threats in a 15-minute period without being targeted once,” Maj. James Schmidt said after Red Flag. “It’s pretty cool to come back from a mission where we flew right over threats knowing they could never see us.”
Two months later, in April 2017, the wings deployed the F-35A to Royal Air Force Lakenheath in the United Kingdom. It was the aircraft’s first overseas deployment. While there, they forward deployed on “out-and-backs” to Estonia and Bulgaria.
Maintainers used the trips to demonstrate that they could deploy and operate the F-35 anywhere on the globe. They also tested and benchmarked their “deployed spares package,” a kit of spare parts and tools that could “keep them healthy” and flying for weeks as they established an F-35A sustainment supply chain.
Pilots flew alongside Lakenheath’s F-15s and with allies from NATO countries, demonstrating the jet’s interoperability.
“The F-35A gives (our F-15s) unprecedented situation awareness which is invaluable when you’re fighting against a high-end threat,” said Lt. Col. Scott Taylor, F-15C pilot and director of operations at Lakenheath’s 493rd Fighter Squadron at the time.
Weapons System Evaluations
Airmen here completed the first Combat Hammer and Combat Archer weapons evaluations in August 2017 at the Utah Test and Training Range. The evaluations test the performance of crews, pilots, munitions troops, and aircraft systems in delivering air-to-surface and air-to-air munitions.
“(The F-35) is going to be the cornerstone of our fighting force for a long time and from what we’ve seen so far, it’s living up to the challenge and meeting our expectations, and in several areas exceeding it,” said Col. Dave Abba, 53rd Wing commander, and who oversees the weapons evaluations. “It’s not simply subjective opinions about whether these things work or whether they don’t work, we bring the numbers to back it up.”
During the evaluations, Airmen generated scores of sorties, dropped 56 bombs and fired 11 missiles.
First F-35A Combat Deployment
More than 300 Airmen and 12 aircraft deployed from October 2017 to May 2018 to Kadena Air Base Japan for a Theater Security Package. Their mission was to maintain a combat-ready posture, deter threats and assure U.S. allies.
“When we first got (there), we went over 130 sorties without dropping a single one, which was great for us and kind of unheard of for a new platform like that,” said Master Sgt. Brian Sarafin, lead production superintendent for the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit.
Airmen generated more than 500 sorties from Kadena, and forward deployed to Kunsan Air Base, Korea for two weeks. While there, they launched 53 sorties and participated in realistic, multi-national training exercises.
To this point, he wings have received 40 aircraft and flown more than 11,000 hours. In daily operations at Hill AFB Airmen are exploring how to make a flexible platform even more useful to warfighters through exercises aimed at refining the aircraft’s combat capability by maintaining and operating in different environments and conditions.
“The aircraft was designed with efficiencies and enhanced combat capabilities, and our team is continuously looking at ways to capitalize on it,” Miles said. “I’m proud of our ability to think differently about sustaining and operating this platform. Our Airmen’s ingenuity, energy, and confidence are building an F-35 future that will serve the Air Force and provide four our country’s defense for decades to come.”