HILL AIR FORCE BASE — After a six-month stint in the Middle East, hundreds of airmen from a Hill Air Force Base fighter squadron returned to Utah on Sunday.

The homecoming marked the completion of Hill’s third combat mission in less than two years, as the Air Force’s only fully-operational F-35 combat wing continues to keep a heavy deployment tempo since the base began filling out its fleet of next-generation fighter jets.

Until its Sunday return, Hill’s 421st Fighter Squadron had been stationed Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, since April. Micah Garbarino, spokesperson with the 388th Fighter Wing, said the deployment, which supported the United States Air Force Central Command mission, included both airmen from the active duty 388th and reserve 419th fighter wings.

“We’re all proud of the job that the (squadron) has done and we’re excited to have them back home,” said Col. Steven Behmer, 388th FW commander. “They picked up right where our previously deployed squadrons left off. We’ll continue to train here and remain focused on providing F-35A combat capability.”

Now, each of the wing’s three squadrons, alongside reservists from the 419th, have deployed in support of the Air Force Central Command’s mission at Al Dhafra, Garbarino said. The 4th FS, which deployed in April 2019, was the first. The 34th FS followed, deploying in October 2019 and returning home in June and July.

The 4th FS’s mission, which ended in November 2019, marked the first time the Air Force’s F-35A Lightning II jets performed a real-world combat operation, and the group completed at least two combat strikes on enemy forces. In September 2019, F-35s and pilots from Hill were part of a group that dropped about 80,000 pounds of bombs on Qanus Island in Iraq — a spot that has been used as a hideout by the Islamic State group. In April 2019, Hill F-35 pilots conducted an air strike at Wadi Ashai, Iraq, hitting a long-established IS tunnel network and weapons cache in a remote area of the Hamrin Mountains.

At the time, Air Force officials said the strike marked the jet’s first real-world combat strike.

During the most recent mission, the 421st 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. Command Chief Master Sgt. Liz Cloyd said airmen essentially provided a “blanket of security” for other U.S. forces and allies in the region, while putting “adversaries on notice.”

Garbarino said all of the returning airmen will be required to quarantine for 14 days to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. After quarantining, the airmen will be allowed to take their customary rest and relaxation leave.

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.

“Deployments are always a challenge and each of our return deployers and their families deserve a pat on the back for a job well done,” said Col. Matthew Fritz, 419th FW commander.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!