HILL AIR FORCE BASE — If you live near Hill Air Force Base and have noticed an uptick in fighter jets flying above you house, you aren’t imagining things.
Micah Garbarino, spokesperson for Hill’s 388th Fighter Wing, said the Public Affairs office there has been fielding questions from Northern Utah residents of late, wondering why so many F-35s are taking off and landing on the base runway.
The 388th is the Air Force’s first combat-ready F-35A Lightning II wing and it declared “Full Warfighting Capability” in January. The wing has been steadily increasing training sorties since then. Garbarino said the wing, along with its reserve counterpart, the 419th Fighter Wing, now flies anywhere between 50 and 100 times every day.
Lt. Col. Michael Blauser, 388th Operations Group deputy commander, said there are so many flights because there are a bevy of different training missions F-35 pilots are required to do — from offensive and defensive fights against enemies, to escorting other aircraft.
“We only have one person in that cockpit,” said Col. Steven Behmer, 388th FW commander. “You have to be able to think on your own and make critical decisions that affect an entire formation in a split second. Those are the type of airmen we’re developing every day.”
Garbarino said the daily training sorties at Hill are usually completed in groups of eight, 10 or 12 jets.
The groups are broken into two- or four-ship formations, each with different training objectives for the pilots. The objectives are normally driven by three factors: the Air Force’s official F-35 training syllabus, a training plan developed and tailored specifically to the Hill wing, and specific preparation work for deployments or large exercises.
In addition to specific deployment prep, each pilot has training requirements based on where they are in their development.
“The need for progression as a fighter pilot never stops,” Blauser said. “From the day you leave the basic fighter course, you’re always in some kind of seasoning.”
Hill was selected as the Air Force’s preferred home for the F-35 in December 2013 after a four-year environmental review process. According to a Department of Defense Environmental Impact Statement, the base was selected as the Air Force’s first F-35 combat unit because of the previous fighter experience of its two fighter wings, its proximity to the Utah Test and Training Range, the Ogden Air Logistics Complex, the installation’s weather, zoning and airspace.
The first two operational F-35As arrived at Hill in September 2015. 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 — the 4th, 34th and 421st — each have 24 F-35As, with another six back-up aircraft stored at the base.
The F-35s and accompanying fighter wing personnel have already served several combat deployments. For more than 38 years prior to the F-35’s arrival it Hill, the base was one of the military’s premier F-16 fighter wings.
“It’s human nature to try to apply what you’ve learned in previous airplanes, but this is not the F-16. It’s not the A-10,” Behmer said. “With the F-35, you have to change your assumptions, and that leads to better tactics that fit the new capabilities this aircraft provides. As they progress with this aircraft, our young airmen will continue to unlock that potential.”