HILL AIR FORCE BASE — For the first time in weeks, the familiar sight and roar of fighter jets soaring through the skies above northern Utah will return to Hill Air Force Base. This week, the base welcomes back the F-35A Lightning II and hundreds of airmen from two squadrons heading home following a two-month hiatus.
The airmen from the active duty 388th and Reserve 419th fighter wings, along with the 421st and 34th Fighter Squadrons, have completed their recent deployment assignments and are scheduled to resume daily flying operations on Saturday.
"We're bringing back about 600 airmen and about 20 (F-35) jets," explained Lt. Col. Yosef Morris, deputy commander for the 388th Fighter Wing. "Everybody is excited to be back here. We love the area and the community support we get here."
The 388th and 419th are the U.S. Air Force’s only combat-capable F-35A units, according to a news release.
Members of the 421st Fighter Squadron are returning from a two-month European theater assignment where they were stationed at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, he said. While abroad, the squadron participated in various combat operation exercises in conjunction with several allied and partner nations, he added.
"In Europe, the deployment was the normal part of a rotation that fighter aircraft do around the world," Morris said. "It's just to help support different areas of operation, whether it's Europe or the Pacific theater or wherever it might be to build partner capacity and reassure our allies in those various areas."
"The theater support package is essentially on par with combat minus being in combat," he said. "That's some of what we get tasked with and you have to be ready for."
The mission allows the allied nations to create a more cohesive and effective combined military fighting force, he said.
During the two-month period, the 34th Fighter Squadron operated out of Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho while the main runway at Hill was undergoing major repair reconstruction, Morris said.
"We were doing the normal readiness training that we would have done here," he said. Some of the training was done at the same ranges in Utah's west desert, just between different take-off and landing sites, he noted.
In June 2016, the 34th Fighter Squadron also operated out of Mountain Home as part of a mock deployment to assess readiness preceding the Air Force declaring operational capability for the F-35A aircraft. This time, the Hill units worked with airmen and units from Idaho to maintain their overall combat readiness, he said.
Currently, the 4th Fighter Squadron from Hill (to which Morris is assigned) is still deployed at Al Dahfra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, in support of the U.S. Central Command mission, he said.
Morris said being able to practice in various locations provides elements that are helpful when training for global combat.
"It adds to the training just to go flying in a different location," he said. "That's always a benefit to us operate out of an unfamiliar location where we have to set up all the people (and equipment needed to deploy)."
Once in the designated locale, the training exercises mimic those employed in a familiar setting, but with any necessary adjustments made to accommodate the changes in the environment, he said. No matter the location, being in the cockpit of the F-35 is a heart-pumping experience, the veteran pilot said.
"It's awesome," he said. "It's like driving a Tesla instead of a car made in the '80s. It's a leap in technology and amenities."
He said the high-level technology that enables pilots to execute advanced tactics and maneuvers during warfighting makes the F-35 a major advantage for the U.S. military.
In the coming weeks, the units are expected to continue their normal flying operations even as the final repairs are made during the last phase of runway reconstruction, he said. The runway repair and expansion project will cost an estimated $43.6 million to complete, the release stated.
Meanwhile, for Morris, this most recent deployment was a reminder of why he joined the military 19 years ago.
"For most of us, it comes down to wanting to serve something greater than yourself," he explained. "There is also the camaraderie, of course, and the ability to serve something a little higher."