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Eielson Showcases F-35; Alaskan Command Chief Emphasizes Its Lethality, Deployability

Isaac Johnson/354th FW public affairs

Eielson Air Force Base opened its doors Tuesday to local, state and federal officials to give them a chance to see an F-35 fighter up close and to learn about its capabilities. The Air Force sent the warplane here for a few weeks for testing in anticipation of the arrival of two squadrons beginning in 2020.

The road to Eielson was coated with ice Tuesday, but the Air Force officer in charge of testing the F-35’s ability to operate on icy runways says he can’t use the natural stuff that comes from precipitation.

“We have to clear the ice, then we have to put some ice down, so it’s consistent and we control the test,” says Lt. Col. Tucker Hamilton, who commands the 461st Flight Test Squadron out of Edwards Air Force Base in California. And he says the controlled testing the F-35A Lightning IIis undergoing at Eielson requires consistent ice thickness, in order to get valid test data.

“So today, it’s literally just starting with steering,” he said. “At 5 knots, how does it turn? Is it skipping at all? And then we’re going to his the ice and slam on the brakes at different ground speeds.”

Credit Isaac Johnson/354th FW public affairs
Lt. Col. Tucker Hamilton talks about the F-35A Lightning II at Tuesday's event at Eielson.

Hamilton says the Air Force has been testing F-35s for years, and he says the icy-runway tests are among the last that the state-of-the-art warplane will undergo before two squadrons begin to arrive at Eielson in 2020. He says most of the cold-weather testing at temperatures as low as 50 below took place in a climate-controlled facility at Eglin Air Force Base – in subtropical Florida.      

“Does the engine start? How was the maintenance on the jet? Are people’s hands too cold? Are there things freezing, with the helmet? Y’know, we did all that testing in the lab itself.”

Lt. Gen. Ken Wilsbach, who heads up the Air Force’s Alaskan Command, says all that testing has proven the F-35 is well-suited for operations out of Eielson. He says the location is ideal, because it’s next door to vast expanses of airspace above the 65,000-square-mile Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex. And he says in real-world situation, the 54 F-35s that will be stationed at Eielson will be able to take advantage of Alaska’s key global position to get to most any potential trouble spot between here and the equator within 12 hours.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Lt. Gen. Ken Wilsbach says the F-35s at Eielson will be able to take advantage of nearby JPARC training ranges – and could deploy to faraway trouble spots using air tankers like those stationed at the base.

“So that’s why we say Alaska is a really important, strategic location,” Wilsbach said. “Because of the technology that we have, with air-refueling, we can be in a lot of places really quick.”

The general says that’s why Tuesday’s event held inside a cavernous hangar included a KC-135 air tanker like those used by the Alaska Air National Guard’s 168th Air Refueling Wing that’s based at Eielson. And parked next to the F-35 was another stealthy advanced fighter, an F-22 Raptor out of Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson. Wilsbach says the F-22’s air-to-air combat capabilities combined with the F-35’s advanced sensors and air-to-ground armaments will deliver a potent punch against adversaries. 

“And so when you put them together, which is typically how we would plan to go into a fight, it’s a pretty awesome capability,” he said.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Tuesday's event included an F-22 from JBER parked near the F-35.

“And there’s no threat currently in the world that would probably be able to handle these two, because of their synergies when they’re put together.”

Congressman Don Young says that capability shows the value of bringing the F-35s to Eielson.

“This aircraft will put us within nine hours of Korea, if there’s a conflict that occurs; 12 hours between us and the Middle East,” he said. “It is the most advanced aircraft, but we have the right location for it to be stationed.”

Young called Tuesday’s event a “celebration” of the buildup at Eielson, which includes18 construction projects worth more than a half-billion dollars that are being built around to support the F-35s.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.