HILL AIR FORCE BASE -- Pending a disaster, the F-35 is coming to Hill Air Force Base.
On Thursday, state lawmakers and the Air Force announced that the base has been chosen as the Air Force's "preferred alternative" for the location of the first two operational squadrons of the new, advanced F-35 stealth fighter.
The announcement essentially means Hill has one hurdle -- the completion of an environmental impact statement -- to clear before standing up two active-duty F-35 squadrons by 2013.
"What the Air Force is saying is that their plan is to bring the F-35 to Hill," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.
"The EIS still has to be completed, and there are still going to be public hearings, but it would be very difficult for the Air Force to backtrack on this."
The EIS will examine issues relating to land use, airspace and safety, air and water quality, noise, socioeconomics, biological and cultural resources, and cumulative actions.
"The decision isn't final," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "A change in service requirements or an unforeseen event, however unlikely, could hinder Hill's final selection."
Members of Utah's congressional delegation say the announcement is good for both the Top of Utah economy and the security of Hill in the future.
"The Air Force's decision to bring F-35 squadrons to Hill will secure the future of this base for decades to come," said Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah.
Col. Scott Zobrist, commander of the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill, said the base's proximity to the Utah Test and Training Range, its maintenance capability and its history with the F-16 are all likely reasons why it was selected by the Air Force.
"Hill has had a historical role in fighter aviation," he said. "This is just a continuation of that."
Bishop said the Air Force officials also indicated that Hill would likely obtain a third operational squadron in 2019, assuming the F-35 program remains funded and on course.
"The initial report says two (squadrons), and those will replace the two F-16 squadrons that are at Hill right now," Bishop said. "But it looks like we'll eventually get that third squadron as well."
Bishop said one F-35 squadron carries 24 planes, so if the base were to receive all three squadrons, the setup would be similar to Hill's 388th Fighter Wing, which had 72 F-16s and three fighter squadrons up until this year, when the 34th Fighter Squadron and all of its jets were inactivated.
The F-16s will stop being produced in 2013.
Officials say it's too early to tell exactly what F-35 basing will mean to the local economy, but the 388th Fighter Wing currently has 2,200 airmen working in it.
Operational missions of the F-35 also will go to the Burlington Air Guard Station in Vermont. For training, the Air Force is recommending Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
The final record of decision, making Hill's selection certain, is expected in January.