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Hill Airmen, F-35 tested during concurrent exercises at Tyndall AFB

A photo of an F-35 at Checkered Flag

A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II, assigned to the 34th Fighter Squadron, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, taxis by U.S. Navy Seamen, and an F/A-18E Super Hornet, assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 86, Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, at Tyndall AFB, Florida, May 11, 2021. Checkered Flag is a large-force aerial exercise held at Tyndall, which fosters readiness and interoperability through the incorporation of fourth and fifth-generation aircraft in combat training. The 21-2 iteration of the exercise was held May 10-21, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Brad Sturk)

Man loading a missile onto an aircraft

A U.S. Air Force Airman with the 34th Fighter Squadron, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, loads an M-120 missile during Weapons System Evaluation Program 21-8 at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, May 11, 2021. Checkered Flag 21-2 was held in coordination with the 53rd Wing’s WSEP East 21-8, run by the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group located at Tyndall. Holding these exercises together allowed participating units to test both air-to-ground and air-to-air capability. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tiffany Price)

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – Airmen from Hill’s fighter wings recently deployed the F-35A Lightning II to Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., for concurrent training exercises –  one a large-scale, joint-force air war, called Checkered Flag, the other an air-to-air weapons evaluation, Combat Archer.

Since May 10, the 34th Fighter Squadron and Fighter Generation Squadron, comprised of active duty Airmen from the 388th and Reservists from the 419th Fighter Wings, integrated the F-35 with other Air Force and U.S. Navy units during Checkered Flag 21-2.

The exercise is one of the Department of Defense’s largest joint aerial training exercise and takes place over the Gulf of Mexico. It is a valuable opportunity for pilots and maintainers from the Navy and Air Force to cooperate across services that often have operational differences on the ground and in the air.

“We had an entire Carrier Air Wing in the exercise, which gave us an amazing opportunity to integrate fourth and fifth-generation aircraft with the Navy and fly against an entire simulated enemy Air Force,” said Lt. Col. Aaron Cavazos, 34th Fighter Squadron commander. “In the F-35, we primarily had a defensive counter-air focus, working together across platforms, defending territory against as many as 100 red aircraft in a force package that we built from our learned strengths. It was an amazing opportunity.”

The exercise was also valuable for the maintainers in the 34th FGS, who generated nearly 20 sorties per day, operating away from home station in temporary facilities with limited space.

“Deploying the F-35 has a large logistical footprint,” said Capt. Susan McLeod, 34th FGS director of operations. “But our Airmen are adaptive and we stayed innovative and provided the squadron with every sortie they needed.”

At the same time they were planning, generating and flying sorties for Checkered Flag scenarios, the squadron was also participating in Combat Archer – a cradle-to-grave, live-fire, air-to-air weapons system evaluation. During Combat Archer, maintainers are evaluated on building and loading munitions, while pilots and aircraft systems are evaluated on hitting targets.    

“This Combat Archer evaluated our maintenance and operational capability to mission plan, load, and employ air to air missiles like AIM-120s, and AIM-9Xs, and the 25mm cannon in live-fire scenarios,” said Cavazos. “We were able to validate new mission-planning setups that will have program-wide impacts. The data we collected is helping to bust old assumptions that will expand our weapons envelopes.”

For pilots and maintainers alike, the Tyndall deployment was an “efficient, cost-effective” way to get realistic training. The concurrent missions were a test, but one they feel will make them more prepared for future deployments.

“The combining of the two exercises forced our team to function on a stressful timeline, on an unfamiliar base,” Cavazos said. “To meet the demands, our team couldn’t get apathetical about mission planning or logistics, and that allowed us to mimic some of those same stresses you find in combat.”