Six fifth-generation aircraft from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, originally flew out on Saturday; two additional aircraft will join the rotation this week after one stayed stateside for a small maintenance fix, said Lt. Col. George Watkins, commander of the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill.
Before crossing the Atlantic, the pilot of the aircraft noticed a fuel tank float valve mishap, Watkins said. As a routine safety precaution, the aircraft stayed back until the issue was resolved.
“They diverted two of the airplanes, one with the problem, one as the wingman to Bangor, Maine,” said Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, a former F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot who directs the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program’s integration office for the service.
“There are no F-35 maintenance people at Bangor, so you now have to fly people from Hill Air Force Base … out, to do the troubleshooting on the airplane and then fix the airplane,” Pleus told Military.com at the Pentagon Wednesday.
The Air Force would have had to wait for available tankers to then fly alongside the fighters to Lakenheath, said the general, who is moving on to a new post at Air Combat Command.
“You can’t just say that the airplane took five days to fix — the airplane could have taken two hours to fix, but to get tankers and logistics folks out there” it takes longer, he said.
“Realize, it’s a very difficult, logistical challenge to move fighter planes across the ocean,” Pleus said. “The Air Force makes it look very easy when we do it, because we do it all the time.”
Pleus said hiccups are standard no matter whether the service is dealing with an older, fourth-generation F-16 or a brand new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Air Force has contingency plans in place in case of any kind of snafu, he said.
“Fighter airplanes are extremely technologically complicated machines, [like] high performance sports cars that require lots of maintenance and lots of work; in this case, it was out of caution the pilot decided [he] had an anomaly, and said it was best” to check it out.
First Time Training in Europe
For the first week of training, the F-35s will be doing primarily air-to-air training with local F-15C and F-15E squadrons, Watkins said.
“We’ll then do a small force exercise, [then] large force exercise with [U.K. Eurofighter] Typhoons, and potentially some Dutch F-16s as well,” Watkins said. He said the training will be conducted primarily over U.K. airspace; but there will be some “out and back” one-off flights over NATO airspace, added Capt. Sybil Taunton, U.S. Air Forces Europe-Air Forces Africa Public Affairs.
The exercises will include one-on-one dogfighting, and simulated training with inert weapons such as the the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile,or AMRAAM; the GBU-31 2,000 pound, GPS-guided joint direct attack munition; and the 500 pound GBU-12 laser seeker bomb.
“We will do air-to-air and air-to-ground training while we’re here,” Watkins said.
The deployment is partially funded through the European Reassurance Initiative — established under President Barack Obama in 2014 to fund programs for the U.S. military conducting exercises in Europe in wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea — and partially by the Air Force, Taunton said. She could not provide specifics on what this initial deployment costs.
The F-35 deployment is using more than 200 pilots, maintainers, security, and other various personnel, Watkins said, which is slightly more than needed, but the Air Force saw it as an opportunity to train additional airmen during the event.
Taunton added, “We are continuing to send that reassurance message supporting our NATO partners, reinforcing our commitment to NATO.”