Inside the Gates: F-35s take over fighter squadron with storied combat history
The first handful of new F-35s are expected to arrive at Eielson Air Force Base sometime in April 2020. Aside from new hangars and air space, the fifth-generation fighters will also be part of a revived squadron.
"It's always kind of an honor to be a part of the history of a squadron so personally it's just really cool to have a connection with a unit who's been organized ever since the beginning of the Air Force," Lt. Col. James Christensen said.
Christensen was recently named the commander of the 356th Fighter Squadron, one of two squadrons the 54 new F-35s will join, that's been inactive. The reactivated group will become part of Eielson's 354th Fighter Wing.
"That now bridges the gap to a new generation to say, 'Hey, we were there in Vietnam. We defended our partners, sister services, allies in Vietnam,'" Christensen said. "That's cool because that really brings the next generation of fighter jets — the F-100 and F-4 — which kind of started the beginning of our mission."
The F-35 is specifically designed to get into enemy territory and suppress missile systems. Alaska's hundreds of miles of wide-open airspace give the F-35s a training area that can't be replicated anywhere else in the United States.
"We can combine these packages of aircraft and do things we can't do in the Lower 48. There's just not enough room in the airspace," Christensen said. "So, people need to know there is no other place in the United States for fifth-generation aircraft to fight our tactics [...] no better place than Alaska."
Christensen said two to four F-35s will make their way to Eielson from Fort Worth, Texas in April 2020. Each month thereafter more will be added until the 356th is filled, which he says could take nine months to a year. Once full, the second squadron will start supplying its fleet.
In 2027, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson is expected to house over a half dozen new helicopters to replace the current Pave Hawks used in Alaska Search and Rescue efforts. Sikorsky, the manufacturing company, showcased the newest iteration of combat rescue helicopter Oct. 11 during a ceremony in Florida.
“The Combat Rescue Helicopter is the new era in Air Force aviation and a pivotal milestone that ties to our company’s legacy of bringing people home,” said Sikorsky President Dan Schultz in the press release. “Sikorsky employees and our nationwide supply chain are ready to begin producing, delivering and supporting this all-new aircraft for the warfighter.”
Sikorsky received the green light to start production on 10 helicopters. The U.S. Air Force program of record calls for 113 helicopters to replace the Pave Hawks.
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