Since May 30, the 388th Fighter Wing’s 34th Fighter Squadron has been flying out of Mountain Home Air Force Base in what has been the largest off-station F-35A Lightning II operation to date.
The squadron, normally stationed at Hill AFB, Utah, is functioning as a detachment with about 300 Airmen in operations, support and maintenance. They arrived at Mountain Home AFB with 17 jets and will build up to 24 as they continue to receive and process new aircraft being delivered from the Lockheed Martin production line.
All of the wing’s three fighter squadrons are operating in Mountain Home AFB because the Hill runway is undergoing major construction and repairs. The 4th FS is deployed to Al Dhafra Air Base and United Arab Emirates while the 421st FS is supporting a Theater Security Package in Europe.
At Mountain Home AFB, the challenge for the 34th FS, in addition to daily flying and maintenance, has been balancing the right mixture of people with the right training, in the right places at the right time. Some of the required training, like F-35A simulators and maintenance aids, are only available at Hill AFB.
“We’ve been rotating people on the ops side every one or two weeks and less frequently on the maintenance side,” said Lt. Col. Christopher White, 34th FS director of operations. “It’s been a challenge, but we’re ready if we need to break glass.”
There are several new Airmen in the 34th FS, but during the course of the summer, each pilot will have opportunities to employ weapons in all of the F-35A’s primary mission sets. The squadron will fire more than 25,000 rounds of ammunition and employ more than 70 precision guided munitions.
During their time here, they have integrated with F-15E Strike Eagles from the 366th Fighter Wing here in both offensive and defensive air-to-air and air-to-ground combat scenarios.
“We’re really trying to get everyone a wide variety of missions while we’re here,” White said. “We don’t get to integrate with the Strike Eagles very much down in our airspace in Utah, and their range here has outstanding threat emitters.”
Having the F-35A at Mountain Home AFB has also been a valuable training opportunity for F-15 pilots.
“In any kind of large scale conflict, it’s not going to be F-15s by themselves or F-35s by themselves,” said Maj. George Arbuckle, 391st FS director of operations. “It’s going to be fourth- and fifth-generation assets flying a combined, coordinated push.”
The face-to-face mission planning, flying and debriefing in various combat scenarios is much more effective than meeting up over the Utah Test and Training Range and then returning to separate bases, Arbuckle said.
“We don’t really ever get this level of integrated training with the F-35 unless we’re in a large force exercise,” said Lt. Col. Travis Stephens, 391st FS commander. “We hope this is the beginning of a long-term relationship of training together, using the airspace to continue to develop our joint tactics.”
Over the past month, the squadron has been flying 16-20 sorties per day, which will increase during upcoming exercises.
“The aircraft are cooperating, and the 366th (FW) has been really great with helping us get set up,” said Senior Master Sgt. Westley Calloway, 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit lead production superintendent. “Operating away from home station, has required us to really think critically about supply and parts and making fixes no matter what.”
An additional benefit has been bringing the unit closer together and strengthening the skill sets of younger Airmen.
“Anytime a unit is on the road you find out who people really are and how well they work,” Calloway said. “You see who you can trust and count on to carry out critical tasks in the future. They’re stepping up.”
Micah Garbarino, 388th Fighter Wing