MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho --
Since May 30, the 388th Fighter Wing’s 34th Fighter Squadron has been flying out of Mountain Home 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 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 away from Hill as the runway there undergoes major construction and repairs. The 4th Fighter Squadron is deployed to Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, and the 421st Fighter Squadron is supporting a Theater Security Package in Europe.
At Mountain Home, the challenge for the 34th, 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.
“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 Fighter Squadron director of operations. “It’s been a challenge, but we’re ready if we need to break glass.”
There are several new or inexperienced wingmen in the 34th, but during the course of the summer, each pilot will have opportunities to employ weapons in all of the F-35As 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-15Es 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, 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. It’s going to be fourth and fifth-generation assets flying a combined, coordinated push,” said Maj. George Arbuckle, 391st Fighter Squadron, director of operations.
The face-to-face mission planning, flying and debriefing in various combat scenarios is much more effective than meeting up over the UTTR 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 Fighter Squadron 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.”
The F-35A maintainers have been “crushing it.” Over the past month, the squadron has been flying 16-20 sorties per day, which will increase during upcoming exercises. They have only lost two sorties due to maintenance issues.
“The aircraft are cooperating and the 366th has been really great with helping us get set up,” said Senior Master Sgt. Westley Calloway, lead production superintendent 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit. “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.”