HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- It was a moment of military history, and it happened at Hill Air Force Base, where the 388th and 419th fighter wings have tested and put into operation the first squadron of F-35 Lightning fighters.
“Ladies and gentlemen, yours and my F-35A Lightning is ready for combat and reporting for duty,” said Deborah James, Secretary of the Air Force.
James, the civilian leader of the Air Force, spoke in a hangar packed with airmen, pilots, industry executives and elected officials.
She was joined on stage by the commander of Hill’s 388th Fighter Wing, Colonel Brad “Detroit” Lyons.
“[The F-35] is extremely capable today, but it’s going to be an absolute monster in the years to come,” Lyons said.
Lyons reported a number of accomplishments of the Wing as they tested the jets, known as the world’s first “5th generation” fighters, including finishing every scheduled sortie during a training deployment at Mountain Home Air Base in Idaho.
On that same training trip, he said the F-35 did better than he ever imagined in combat tests against 4th generation fighters, which are called “red air” when used as simulated adversaries.
“It achieved every required mission objective with zero F-35 from enemy red air," Lyons said.
Pilots described the plane as having “low observability,” meaning stealth. Combine that stealth with advanced abilities to see an entire arena of battle, and the F-35 sneaks up on older fighters before they know what hits them.
Capt. James “Holy” Schmidt described it as the ability, “…to kill them before they even know we're there.”
The F-35 has more than a decade of redemption to earn, with powerful critics in Washington.
Senator John McCain, Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has long protested what he calls “scandalous” cost overruns and performance problems with the jet.
In a press release this week, McCain congratulated the airmen at Hill for getting the plane combat ready, but he continued to express skepticism.
“But for the most expensive weapons system in history, the road ahead remains long," McCain stated. "The Senate Armed Services Committee will continue to exercise rigorous oversight of the Joint Strike Fighter program’s long-delayed System Development and Demonstration phase as well as the start of the operational test and evaluation phase."
Utah’s governor and congressional delegation praised the program and the crews at Hill.
“This is the most devastating airplane ever developed by mankind," Senator Orrin Hatch said.