Hill’s 388th and 419th Fighter Wings, which have 78 aircraft between them, began to receive jets in September 2015, and were declared initially operational in August 2016. The base received around two jets every month, immediately integrating the new aircraft as they arrived.
According to officials, “full warfighting capability” describes a status of fully trained pilots and maintainers, necessary support equipment and a “full complement” of jets. In December 2019, the base achieved its goal of equipping each squadron with “24 primary assigned aircraft and six backups,” the Air Force said.
To display how far Hill has come, the wings on Monday conducted a massive “elephant walk,” launching 52 F-35s from multiple squadrons in rapid succession. While the combat exercise took place in the midst of a tense standoff between the U.S. and Iran, Hill said in another release Monday that the exercise had been planned for months.
The fighter wings sought to steadily integrate the new weapons systems, beginning with training “a core of pilots” who had some previous F-35A experience, the release said.
“We didn’t have a majority of pilots who had been training and carrying out F-35A tactics for 15 or 20 years,” 388th commander Col. Steven Behmer said. “Every training opportunity, exercise and deployment we’ve completed over the past four years has been a key stepping stone in reaching full warfighting capability.”
While pilots and maintenance personnel had experience with legacy systems such as the F-16, the new F-35As require additional specialization in maintenance and support operations. Like the fighter wings’ approach to pilot training, the ground personnel began training with a core group.
“We really relied on our more experienced personnel, and as we received more aircraft, spread them throughout the group to train and equip the next F-35A aircraft maintenance units the right way,” said Col. Michael Miles, commander of the 388th Maintenance Group.
And the wings are already seeing action. Throughout the last four years, squadrons have deployed to Europe, the Pacific and in support of operations to the Middle East.
“This is just the beginning of sustained F-35A combat operations, and we will remain focused on staying ready to deploy whenever, wherever we’re needed,” Behmer said in the release.