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With recent modifications, F-35 can now fly anywhere it darn well pleases

By Mark Saal - | Aug 2, 2016

For any number of reasons, I don’t like trash-talking the Air Force.

To begin with, I’m told it’s the primary economic engine in Northern Utah, and nobody in his or her right mind bites the hand that feeds them. But also, I’m reticent to criticize an organization as armed to the teeth as this one. I’m not saying fighter jets would intentionally target my home, but I am saying that accidents will happen. If you catch my drift.

Mostly, I’ve avoided going after the Air Force because it’s gotten me in dutch a time or two with the newspaper’s chain of command.

I can count on one hand the number of times, over the past three decades, an editor has told me I couldn’t write about a particular subject. Dental hygiene (of all things), for one. Gays and guns, for another. And Hill Air Force Base.

• RELATED: Evidence of Great Basin’s earliest inhabitants found at Utah training range

Our current editorial regime hasn’t specifically told me to avoid bad-mouthing the Air Force. But that may only be because I haven’t had the tail flaps to write about the subject since 2008.

Ah, 2008. That was the year Hill Air Force Base ended up looking like a college fraternity on spring break.

Don’t get me wrong. Stuff happens. Why, as far back as 1989, three F-16 jet engines were stolen from the base. No, not engine parts, but the entire 17-foot-long, 3,000-pound engines. Three of ’em. Worth about $2 million apiece.

Although 2008 may have lacked anything quite that big, it more than made up for it in volume. In March of that year, the story broke of a mixup at a HAFB warehouse that resulted in four super-secret nuclear missile fuses being shipped to Taiwan. Back in August 2006, Hill workers were supposed to ship four replacement battery packs for the UH-1 Huey helicopter to the small island nation off the coast of China. Instead, they sent nose-cone fuse assemblies designed to help trigger nuclear warheads on Minuteman ICBMs.


I, of course, immediately wrote a sensitive, thoughtful opinion piece on that little mistake.

Then, just a few weeks later, two U.S. Army soldiers suffered minor injuries when an F-16 fighter jet from Hill Air Force Base opened fire on their SUV while they were driving at the Utah Test and Training Range. News reports say the sport utility vehicle, a rental from Avis, was damaged in the incident. I certainly hope they sprang for the rental company’s supplemental car insurance.

The most ironic part of this story is that the two soldiers’ combat duties included — get this — working to prevent “friendly fire” mishaps.

Oops again.

And once more, at the time I wrote a sensitive, thoughtful opinion piece about it.

And that’s when a kindly editor called me into his office.

“You know, as your editor, I’ve never told you what you can and can’t write about, right?” he asked.

“Sure,” I responded.

“Well,” he continued, “I’m telling you. Not as an editor but as a friend. Lay off Hill.”

As it turned out, our then-publisher had friends in high places at the base, and they were none too pleased with my jocular approach to Hill’s recent string of bad luck.

Let me stress that no one — not the editor, not the publisher — was trying to stifle any news coverage of Hill. Apparently, they just didn’t want their Village Idiot adding insult to injury.

“Fine,” I agreed. It seemed a safe bet at the time, because what are the chances that lightning would strike that location thrice that year anyway?

Of course, if you answered “100 percent,” you would be correct.

Because less than eight weeks later, Hill Air Force Base was again in the news. This time for a box containing a dozen M-16 assault rifles that fell off the back of a Humvee, virtually unnoticed. I say “virtually,” because the one person who did notice the green box lying in the middle of the road loaded it into his vehicle and drove it off base. (It was later returned.)

It about killed me to let that pitch sail past.

And frankly, ever since then I’ve been a little gun-shy about picking on the Air Force. But I do have to make just one teeny-tiny comment about a recent item in the news.

• RELATED: Lightning II ready for lightning: Hill’s work to prepare the F-35 for combat is done

A week ago, Standard-Examiner military reporter Mitch Shaw wrote that Hill Air Force Base officials say their work to prepare the F-35 is now complete. And that among those preparations were modifications to allow the jet to fly in or near thunderstorms.

Yeppers. Until recently the Air Force’s new uber-expensive F-35 fighter jet — ironically nicknamed “Lightning II” ? was prohibited from flying within 25 nautical miles of the stuff. According to a government report, the ban had something to do with the plane needing to “maintain residual inerting after flight for the required interval of 12 hours, which is a lightning requirement.” Whatever that means.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter now, because the modified F-35 can indeed “maintain residual inerting” and thus fly anywhere it darn well pleases. And not a moment too soon. Because my sources at the Pentagon tell me that our enemies the world over had begun planning all their military operations for days when the forecast called for scattered thundershowers. Plus, they may or may not have been developing a weapon that can fire lightning bolts.

See what I mean by sensitive, thoughtful opinion pieces?

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.


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