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EGLIN AFB, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — A second squadron of F-35A fighter jets is coming to Eglin Air Force Base, according to a Monday announcement from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

While details were scarce, that news was confirmed Tuesday by public affairs personnel from the 33rd Fighter Wing, the Eglin-headquartered wing to which the new squadron will be assigned, and the 96th Test Wing, the base's host unit.

In a news release from his office, Rubio called the Air Force's announcement of the new training squadron coming to Eglin "a big win for Northwest Florida and our nation's military readiness."

According to Rubio's announcement, a new squadron will bring 24 F-35A jets to Eglin. Other estimates of the impact of the new squadron have indicated that it could bring as many as 500 new personnel onto the installation.

Ann Stefanek, chief of media operations for the Air Force, said that the service notified Congress of its decision on Monday but hasn't made a broader announcement because the Air Force is still working through the timing for the move.

Closer to home, Col. Jon Wheeler, commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, called the announcement "the culmination of years of work to bring increased capabilities to the 33rd Fighter Wing mission."

Wheeler added that the 33rd Fighter Wing is "thrilled with this decision, which will effectively double our F-35 pilot production in the future and ultimately, enhance the readiness of our combat air forces."

Expectations that Eglin would get a second F-35A squadron to train pilots and maintenance personnel on the fifth-generation stealth fighter jet began forming in 2019, when the Air Force announced that Eglin was its preferred location for a new F-35A squadron.

That announcement was followed by an evaluation that included an assessment of the squadron's potential environmental impacts, including the possibility for noise pollution for areas near Eglin.

Monday's announcement is an indication that the environmental assessment, which included public comment on the proposed addition of an F-35A squadron, has been successfully completed.

At the time it announced that Eglin was its preferred location for a new F-35A squadron, the Air Force indicated that the new aircraft could begin arriving in the fall of 2021, with a new squadron slated to reach full operational capability by the spring of 2023.

The Air Force's proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, calls for the acquisition of 48 new F-35A jets.

The F-35A is the Air Force's version of the fifth-generation stealth fighter jet, and has been among the aircraft on Eglin's flight line since 2011.

The base also has hosted Marine Corps training on the F-35B, which can land vertically and can take off in a short distance, and has hosted Navy training on the F-35C, which is designed for operating from aircraft carriers.

The Marine Corps relocated its F-35Bs in 2014 and the Navy relocated its F-35Cs in 2019 after initial training on the aircraft had been completed.

The announcement that a new F-35A training squadron will arrive at Eglin comes just a few months after the Air Force announced that three new F-35A squadrons will come to Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City as part of the 325th Fighter Wing.

That decision came in the days after Hurricane Michael all but leveled Tyndall in 2018. The base is being rebuilt as what the Air Force calls the "installation of the future," in part specifically to accommodate the needs of the F-35A.

The first of what eventually will be a fleet of 72 F-35A jets are scheduled to begin arriving at Tyndall in September 2023, according to the Air Force.

The F-35As at Tyndall and Eglin will be able easily to take advantage of the Gulf Test and Training Range, which includes a 120,000-square-mile section of the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

The telemetry and other equipment on the range is currently being modernized to meet testing and training needs for the Air Force and other military services that use the range, which is overseen by Eglin's 96th Test Wing.

(c)2021 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.)

Visit the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.) at www.nwfdailynews.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

An F-35A Lightning II fighter jet from the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, takes off for Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, April 27, 2020.
An F-35A Lightning II fighter jet from the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, takes off for Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, April 27, 2020. (Todd Cromar/U.S. Air Force)

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