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Hill AFB pilots fly F-35s in dogfight training missions

An F-35A Lightning II takes off from the Eglin Air Force Base on Aug. 21, 2013.

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah — The first operational F-35 won't arrive at Hill Air Force Base until late next year, but on Thursday, pilots from the base's 419th and 388th Fighter Wings got a head start on training.

A group of F-16 pilots and maintainers from the two fighter wings left for Eglin Air Force Base in Florida late last week to get a sneak preview of the F-35A Lightning II, the Air Force's newest fighter aircraft. Wednesday, Hill pilots flew air-to-air combat training missions with F-35s that are currently assigned to Eglin's 33rd Fighter Wing.

In December 2013, Hill was named the Air Force's first operational basing location for the F-35A, the Air Force version of the jet. Hill's two fighter wings will fly and maintain the same aircraft in what is known in the Air Force as a "Total Force Integration" partnership. Before TFI was implemented, the two wings maintained and flew their own, separate aircraft.

Thursday's training consisted of the jets targeting one another, mimicking what would happen in a real-world dog fight.

Lt. Col. David Castaneda, commander of the 419th sub-unit 466th Fighter Squadron, said the mission allowed Hill personnel to train for the eventual integration of the Air Force's fourth and fifth generation fighters (the F-16 and the F-35, respectively) and provided insight into the future of fighter operations of the F-35 at Hill.

"This was a great opportunity for our F-16s to operate with the F-35," Castaneda said.

The exact timing of the F-16's departure from Hill depends on annual budgets and the timing for arrival and bed-down of the F-35 and associated support equipment, but the transition plan does include a period of time where Hill will be operating both aircraft.

While the active-duty 388th and reserve 419th already work together at their home station, training as one group alongside Eglin's fighter wing mimics their real-world mission.

"We are a Total Force Integration operation," said Maj. Jayson Rickard, assistant director of operations in the 466th FS. "Everything we do back home and when we deploy is side-by-side with our active-duty counterparts. This is very representative of what we would do in combat."

On Friday, F-16 maintainers from Hill will receive an in-depth overview of the F-35's "Autonomic Logistics Information System," which houses a broad range of high-tech capabilities like maintenance prognostics and technical data for the aircraft.

Hill AFB is slated to receive its first operational F-35 in late 2015. Planning is currently under way for three operational F-35 squadrons at Hill and the jets are expected to arrive in phases over a three-year period with full conversion anticipated by March 2019.

The operational flying mission of the F-35 continues a long tradition of firsts for Hill's fighter wings. The 388th was the first operational unit to receive the F-16 in 1979, while the 419th FW was the first Air Force reserve unit to receive the jet in 1983.

"The F-35 is going to be an important aircraft for the future of the Air Force," said Tech. Sgt. David Sudak, 419th FW crew chief. "It will provide flexibility both for maintenance and air crews. The new computer system seems to be more integrated. It's going to make our job a lot easier."

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