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F-35 combat exercise pushes limits

An F-35A takes off during a combat exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, May 1, 2019.

An F-35A takes off during a combat exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, May 1, 2019. The active duty 388th Fighter Wing and Reserve 419th Fighter Wing, along with F-16 units from Holloman AFB, New Mexico, and Kunsan Air Base, Korea, conducted an integrated combat exercise where maintainers were tasked to continually provide ready aircraft and pilots took off in waves to simulate a large force engagement with enemy aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

A crew chief launches an F-35A during a combat exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, May 1, 2019.

A crew chief launches an F-35A during a combat exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, May 1, 2019. The active duty 388th Fighter Wing and Reserve 419th Fighter Wing, along with F-16 units from Holloman AFB, New Mexico, and Kunsan Air Base, Korea, conducted an integrated combat exercise where maintainers were tasked to continually provide ready aircraft and pilots took off in waves to simulate a large force engagement with enemy aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

An F-35A takes off during a combat exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, May 1, 2019.

An F-35A takes off during a combat exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, May 1, 2019. The active duty 388th Fighter Wing and Reserve 419th Fighter Wing, along with F-16 units from Holloman AFB, New Mexico, and Kunsan Air Base, Korea, conducted an integrated combat exercise where maintainers were tasked to continually provide ready aircraft and pilots took off in waves to simulate a large force engagement with enemy aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – Pilots and maintainers from the 419th Fighter Wing participated in an intense F-35 combat capability exercise here April 30-May 2.

Aircraft launched on a significantly compressed schedule to simulate rapid combat operations and airfield defense just as it would play out in a real-world environment.

During the exercise, Reserve Citizen Airmen from the 419th FW joined the active duty 388th FW, and F-16 pilots and maintainers from the 311th Fighter Squadron at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, and 80th FS at Kunsan Air Base, Korea. A team of contracted Aggressor pilots from Draken International, Nellis AFB, Nevada, were on hand to play the role of “enemy,” alongside several F-35 aircraft here.

“This type of training really puts to the test our ability to generate sorties quickly and also asses our ability to integrate tactically with the other units, just like we would in combat,” said Lt. Col. Nathan Litz, an F-35 pilot assigned to the 419th FW.  

A routine flying day at Hill sees roughly 8-10 aircraft take off at once, followed by 8-10 jets several hours later. During this exercise, four-ship sorties launched every 30-45 minutes, resulting in about 44 sorties each day.

Maintenance personnel hustled to refuel and reload the aircraft with weapons between each successive land and relaunch, said Capt. John Goodwin, maintenance operations officer in the 419th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.

“Normally our maintainers have two to three hours to turn an aircraft, so having to do so every 30 minutes really tests their skill,” he added. “These exercises are an extremely effective and essential way to ensure our overall readiness.”

While the exercise was underway here, 419th and 388th FW personnel currently deployed to the Middle East destroyed an enemy tunnel network and weapons cache in Iraq on April 30. This marked the first-ever F-35A airstrike in combat.

The 419th and 388th FWs are the Air Force’s first operational combat-capable F-35 units, having received the first jets in October 2015. The active duty 388th FW and Air Force Reserve 419th FW fly and maintain the jet in a Total Force partnership, which capitalizes on the strength of both components. By the end of this year, Hill AFB will be home to 78 F-35s.