HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – Hill Airmen recently returned from Red Flag 21-1, a large-scale, highly-complex Air Combat Command exercise in the Nevada desert.
Maintainers from the 34th Fighter Generation Squadron, alongside Reservists from the 466th Aircraft Maintenance Unit deployed 12 F-35A Lightning IIs to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., from Jan. 25-Feb. 12.
Day-and-night, the Airmen generated two sets of eight aircraft to meet the large-scale conflict scenarios of Red Flag, where a joint force of 40-50 friendly “Blue Force” aircraft would face off against 50-60 enemy “Red Force” aircraft.
The 34th FGS didn’t lose a single F-35A combat sortie to a maintenance issue.
This was the unit’s first deployment since transitioning from an Aircraft Maintenance Unit to a Fighter Generation Squadron.
“Since 2017, the 388th Fighter Wing has brought the fifth-generation combat capability of the F-35A to the Red Flag fight,” said Maj. Richard Palz, 34th Fighter Generation Squadron commander. “This year, we have transitioned a Fighter Generation Squadron, and it’s been seamless. We have provided all the sorties needed to support our training mission here at Red Flag.”
The new structure aims to streamline administrative and operational control over hundreds of maintainers and their mission, making them more agile and responsive as they maintain, sustain and employ the F-35.
“Red Flag has given us the opportunity to showcase our new organizational structure to our Airmen and other units,” said Capt. Susan McLeod, 34th FGS operations officer. “The time and focus our commander (who is no longer split between three AMUs) has with his Airmen, has been the largest success of the Fighter Generation Squadron.”
The squadron has also used the exercise to push and train F-35 maintainers in different specialties. Called the Lightning Technician Program at Hill, and Luke AFB, Ariz,, LTP is making the Air Force’s “Multi-Capable Airmen” idea a reality.
“During this Flag, we continued to test processes and validate our capabilities in contingency and wartime operations,” McLeod said. “When we have weapons troops that are launching aircraft, and schedulers that are helping with a tire change, we truly learn the importance of one team, one fight.”
One of the young maintainers gaining valuable deployment experience at Red Flag is Airman 1st Class Micah Ferguson, an F-35A crew chief from Martinsville, Ohio.
“Every morning I grab my tools and head out to my jet. We’re launching jets and then taking care of any issues when they return, getting them ready for the night crew’s mission,” Ferguson said. “There’s a lot more time here for various training. I’ve been able to help inspect engine intakes and learn contingency operations like single-Airmen launches.”
Red Flag has also allowed the younger Airmen in the squadron to see the “bigger Air Force picture, better understand the F-35’s mission,” Ferguson said. That includes traditional reservists from the 419th Fighter Wing, who get valuable time-on-task during deployments like Red Flag.
This was the first Red Flag experience for Staff Sgt. Amanda Herman, an F-35 weapons loader in the 419th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. Herman is a part-time reservist who also works full time as a police officer for Layton City.
“Red Flag really touches on the teamwork aspect of our work,” Herman said. “When reservists deploy with the F-35, we deploy right alongside the active duty, so this gave us a window into that experience. It’s a chance to work out any kinks so that future operations will be smooth sailing. This was a huge learning opportunity, so I soaked up as much knowledge as I could.”