F-35s fly first training missions in Alaska skies

A USMC F-35B at Joint Base Elmondorf-Richardson as part of Northern Edge this May (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

For the first time, F-35 fighter jets are flying in Alaska as part of massive military training exercise. The small squadron is a preview of what’s in store for the Air Force in Alaska during the next few years.

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More than a dozen reporters and military photographers gathered on the tarmac at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on Tuesday morning for a rare in-person glimpse on an F-35. The smooth gray plane resembles a hybrid between a sports car and an electric razor, stretching about the length of a tractor-trailer.

Officers from the Air Force and the Marine Corps were on hand to answer questions, and introduce service members who are flying and maintaining these new planes, and in Alaska as part of the Northern Edge training exercise.

The USMC squadron of eight F-35B jets are the first fifth generation stealth fighters flown in Alaska for training missions (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Among them was Major Adam Wellington, a Marine Corps pilot who first learned to fly the older F-18 Hornet, but has re-trained on this new 5th generation stealth fighter.

“It was like going from a flip-phone to an iPhone,” Wellington said of the transition.

The F-35 is the first plane designed for use across three different service branches, but each model is slightly different. The Marine version on display at JBER is the F-35B, which can take off vertically, like a helicopter. The 54 planes set to be based in Eielson Air Force Base by 2020 will belong to the Air Force. That model, the F-35A, can’t do vertical landings, but but has more space for fuel and weapons.

The F-35 is the most expensive military program in Defense Department history, with costs projected to exceed a trillion dollars, and potentially run up to $1.5 trillion by the end of the program’s life-cycle in 2070. The procurement and development processes have been riddled with problems, and for almost two decades criticized by politicians on both sides of the aisle, all the way up remarks by President Donald Trump. The last report on the planes from the Government Accountability Office in April found testing could be as much as a year behind schedule, delaying both the roll out timelines and production targets.

As the first branch to get  fully operational F-35 squadrons, Wellington said the Marines are on hand to help share with the Navy and Air Force what the jets are capable of.

“We’re really trying to showcase what this plane can do,” he explained. Exercises like Northern Edge are deisgned to educate other units in lessons learned on the plane’s operations. “Really integrating ourselves into the plans, and the tactics, techniques and procedures that are out there.”

This is only the second time F-35s have been in Alaska. The first was in January when a small number were transiting through. Northern Edge marks the first time they’ve flown missions within the state’s vast training ranges.

None of the new jets is set to be based in Anchorage. The two squadrons are forecast to bring around 3,500 service members, families, and contractors to the Fairbanks area when they arrive.

Northern Edge concludes on Friday, May 12th.

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Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska. @ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

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