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Hill AFB in midst of robust F-35 preparation

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah (AFNS) -- Aggressive renovation and modification is in full swing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, in preparation for the military's newest multi-role fighter aircraft.

Hill AFB’s preparations for the F-35A Lightning II, totaling more than $100 million, with 23 projects to be completed between September 2014 and July 2015, and 36 total projects will be finished once construction concludes in 2019.

Hill's 388th Fighter Wing and the Air Force Reserve 419th Fighter Wing will become the Air Force's first operational units flying the F-35A, with the first jet projected to arrive in September 2015. The 388th FW became the first fully operational F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter wing in 1979, and was the first unit to fly the F-16 into conflict with the low-altitude navigation and targeting infrared for night system through the skies of Iraq and Kuwait during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Earlier this month, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program leader, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, warned there is danger of missing deadlines if F-35 jets aren't flying regularly by the end of September.

"I need all of (the test airplanes) back to full envelope by the end of this month," Bogdan said at a recent conference in Washington D.C. "Otherwise we will start seeing some delays in future milestones."

Col. Lance Landrum, the 388th FW commander, said the challenges the F-35 program is facing aren't affecting how the 388th FW is preparing for the new fighter's arrival.

"We're currently in the most invasive phase of the construction, and our mission hasn't slowed down at all in the process -- we're still flying as many sorties as we can, maintaining our fleet of F-16s, and staying combat ready all while making huge adjustments in preparation for the F-35," Landrum said.

The 388th FW is scheduled to receive 72 F-35A jets in total. The wing will get an initial cadre of pilots from the F-35 test and training units at Eglin AFB, Florida, Luke AFB, Arizona, and Nellis AFB, Nevada, while also gaining F-35 qualified pilots from other fighter wings, and retraining some F-16 pilots currently in-house.

Hill AFB will likely receive 83 F-35 qualified maintainers by December 2015 and transition more than 100 legacy technicians to F-35 maintainers within the first year of operations. Hill AFB collectively will gain roughly 475 members, both active duty and civilian during the transition to the F-35.

The timeline to renovate facilities has been compressed significantly, as the start time to base the jet was pushed back by the delayed record of decision. However, base officials have full faith that Hill AFB will be ready for the F-35, when the base receives the first jet in September 2015.

"We're confident the construction will be on time for the first aircraft arrival, even with our late start after the record of decision was made," said Ron Stonebreaker, the chief of design and construction management in Hill AFB’s civil engineering sector.

Stonebreaker said the projects aren't steady state -- there is constant evolution in preparing for the F-35. His team developed a floor plan for one major hangar that will house the aircraft maintenance units, but then learned there were special requirements for communications rooms -- connectivity between the maintenance and operations teams built around the new jet's automatic logistics information system, which ties the two functions together. His team had to modify the contract and adjust the floor plan to accommodate the requirement.

F-35 sustainment is already in place at Hill AFB's Ogden Air Logistics Complex; the ALC is currently converting dock space used to modify the F-16 to depot maintenance space for F-35. Stonebreaker said post production modifications will likely be a critically important component, as the aircraft is still in development. The Ogden ALC completed the Air Force's first organic depot modifications on an F-35 earlier in 2014.