The U.S. Air Force's first two operational F-35A Joint Strike Fighter jets on Wednesday arrived at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, the service announced.
The fifth-generation stealth fighter jets made by Lockheed Martin Corp. were piloted by Lt. Col. Yosef Morris and Col. David Lyons, who flew one of the planes from the manufacturer's production line in Fort Worth, Texas, according to an Air Force press release. The base will receive one to two F-35As a month until 72 aircraft are delivered.
"The plan is to start flying after Labor Day," said Lt. Col. Darrin Dronoff, chief of the F-35 program integration office for the 388th Fighter Wing, which will operate the aircraft along with its Reserve component 419th Fighter Wing. "We'll start by flying twice a week, but that will slowly progress as we receive more aircraft and training progresses."
The arrival of the operational F-35As comes barely a month after the Marine Corps announced its jump-jet version of the plane known as the F-35B was ready to begin flying initial operations -- albeit with a less lethal version of the aircraft. The Air Force is expected to make a similar declaration by December 2016 and the Navy by February 2019.
Corps officials have acknowledged they’ll have to "make do" with a less lethal version of the airplane. For example, the early operational F-35Bs won’t include a new night-vision helmet, Small Diameter Bomb II or GAU-22/A four-barrel 25mm Gatling gun — or the ability to stream video or simultaneously fuse sensor data from four aircraft.
Many of the weapons improvements will be included as part of a future software upgrade, known as 3F, which is slated for fully operational F-35Bs in late 2017. Indeed, proponents of the aircraft argue that fully operational Joint Strike Fighters will easily outperform fourth-generation aircraft.
Lyons, the F-35A pilot, touted highlighted the jet's stealth ability, advanced technology, avionics and sensor fusion, which allow pilots the flexibility to operate in "contested environments" and strike "tough to reach" targets, according to the release.
The F-35 is the Pentagon's most expensive weapons acquisition program, estimated to cost $391 billion to purchase 2,457 aircraft for the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy.
Eight countries have committed to help develop the F-35, including the U.K., Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway. Also, Israel, Japan and South Korea plan to buy production models of the aircraft.