HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Though they’re not alone, 2020 was a year unlike any other for the Air Force’s only combat-ready F-35 unit.
An amped up deployment rotation was intensified by the arrival of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Each of the 388th Fighter Wing’s three F-35 squadrons, alongside reservists from the 419th Fighter Wing, have now deployed in support of the Air Force Central Command’s mission at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. The Hill service members employed the F-35 on close air support missions, performed offensive and defensive counter-air attacks, and participated in joint exercises with U.S. allies around the Middle East.
Several large groups of airmen returned to Utah last year — in June, July and October — after Middle East stints. Things were complicated by the pandemic, with all of the returning airmen being required to quarantine for 14 days to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some of the airmen who returned during the summer weren’t allowed to leave the state for their customary rest and relaxation leave, due to the Department of Defense’s current coronavirus regulations.
But for the airmen among the group charged with keeping the jets ready to hit the sky at a moment’s notice, the Air Force says the call to a grueling year was answered.
Hill’s 388th and 419th FW Maintenance Groups were recently recognized as Air Combat Command nominees for the 2020 Clements McMullen Memorial Daedalian Weapons System Maintenance award — which means they’re on a short list for the best weapons maintenance outfit in the Air Force. According to a 388th Fighter Wing news release, the award is handed out annually by the Secretary of the Air Force, given to the unit with the greatest weapon system maintenance record. The ACC oversees all air combat operations in the Air Force.
Capt. Kip Sumner, with the 388th FW’s public affairs office, said in 2020 the two maintenance groups generated over 9,000 flights accounting 20,000 flight hours. The hours include both combat and regular training missions. During the combat deployments, the outfit supported Hill F-35s that dropped 16,000 pounds of munitions and eliminated five high-value targets in support of the Central Command operation in the Middle East.
“Our maintainers have persevered and overcome every obstacle, deploying F-35 airpower through three combat deployments, multiple training exercises, and the COVID-19 pandemic,” Col. Steven Behmer, 388th Fighter Wing commander, said in a statement.
The first two operational F-35s arrived at Hill in September 2015 and the base received approximately one to two jets every month until reaching its full fleet of 78 late last year. The wing’s three squadrons each have 24 F-35s, with another six backup aircraft stored at the base. Since the arrival of the first jets, Hill’s two fighter wings have flown tens of thousands of sorties, built millions of dollars of new facilities and taken the jet into real-world combat situations multiple times. Hill F-35 units also have deployed to Royal Air Force Lakenheath in April 2017, as well as Kadena Air Base, Japan, in fall 2017.
Col. Jeremy Anderson, 388th Maintenance Group commander, said the “best in the Air Force” nomination for Hill’s F-35 maintainers exemplifies the work that has been taking place on Hill’s flight line over the past five-plus years.
“We’re the Air Force’s only on-call F-35 option, and this nomination further validates our ability to deliver ... airpower, anytime, anywhere,” he said.