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 there 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 said he can’t use the natural stuff that comes from precipitation.
Lt. Col. Tucker Hamilton commands the 461st Flight Test Squadron out of Edwards Air Force Base in California. And he said the controlled testing the F-35A Lightning II is undergoing at Eielson requires consistent ice thickness, in order to get valid test data.
“We have to clear the ice, then we have to put some ice down, so it’s consistent and we control the test.” Hamilton said. “So today, it’s literally just starting with steering. At five 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.”
Hamilton said 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 said 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,” Hamilton said.
Lt. Gen. Ken Wilsbach, who heads up the Air Force’s Alaskan Command, said all that testing has proven the F-35 is well-suited for operations out of Eielson. He said 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 said in real-world situations, 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.
“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 said 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 said 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,” Wilsbach said. “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 said 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,” Young 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 includes 18 construction projects worth more than half a billion dollars that are being built around to support the F-35s.