The US Air Force (USAF) has activated the first F-35 Lightning II joint fighter aircraft (JSF) squadron at Hill Air Force Base (AFB), Utah, US.
Also known as the Rude Rams, the 34th Fighter Squadron was reactivated after being mothballed as an F-16 Fighting Falcon unit in 2010 as part of an USAF restructuring plan to retire planes and save money.
The squadron becomes the first operational air force unit to fly combat-coded F-35 aircraft, and will start receiving the fifth-generation fighters from September.
However, the first group of F-35 maintainers that will make up the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit have been at the base for two months, completing mostly administrative work critical to the forthcoming aircraft transition.
34th Fighter Squadron commander lieutenant colonel George Watkins said the airmen have been writing programmes to maintain the F-35s in peace and wartime scenarios and have created a flying hours programme featuring directives for training, off-station sorties, contingency scenarios, local flying and any major modifications to the aircraft.
The initial group of F-35 maintainers from the 419th Fighter Wing (FW ) are in training, and the unit’s first pilot scheduled to fly the F-35 will start training this autumn.
The F-35s will be divided among three fighter squadrons and flown and maintained by members of both the 388th FW and its reserve component, the 419th FW.
The airbase will receive a total of 72 F-35s by 2019, with around 35 to 40 pilots in each of the three fighter squadrons.
The 34th Fighter Squadron will have five qualified pilots during the first month of flying, taking turns in what will be two F-35s on base.
Having sent pilots through training at Eglin AFB, Florida, and Luke AFB, Arizona, the 388th Fighter Wing will have ten pilots qualified to fly the F-35 by January 2016.
The base officials aim to have 15 fighters by August 2016 and reach initial operational capability status, which indicates that the fighter wings meet the minimum operational capabilities to use the jet for normal operations.
Image: 34th Fighter Squadron commander lieutenant colonel George Watkins addresses the audience and squadron members during its activation ceremony at Hill AFB, Utah, US. Photo: courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo/Alex R. Lloyd.