As F-35s arrive at Eielson, the base looks towards future and adding a new mission
On Tuesday, the first two F-35A Lightning II aircraft landed at Eielson Air Force Base.
“It’s our first two F-35s that arrived here at Eielson, and it represents a transformation in our mission here at Eielson. We are charged with preparing U.S. and partner forces for 21st century combat. That is what our F-16s do; they train other combat forces to make them better. We also host Red Flag-Alaska exercises here as well. Now with these F-35s, we have a combat mission, that’s added to that portfolio. As part of the Pacific Air Forces, we’re charged with projecting air power in support of worldwide operations and to support a free and open Indo-Pacific. So it’s a big day for Eielson and a big day for Alaska,” said Colonel Benjamin Bishop, commander of the 354th Fighter Wing.
Two pilots from Eielson traveled to Texas to bring the F-35s back. One of the pilots, Colonel James Christensen is the commander of the 356th Fighter Squadron, which was the first F-35 squadron to stand up at Eielson and in the Pacific. He says he has been at Eielson for the past nine months. “We’ve been here setting up the facilities, getting all the maintenance ready, and the rest of the base support so that we can accept these F-35s,” said Christensen.
He says during their 7-hour flight, they saw many iconic sites. “We saw Moab in Utah, went over Salt Lake City, saw the Great Salt Lake, and then right past Mount Hood into Seattle. Coming up the Alaskan coastline was absolutely gorgeous, the glaciers and the mountains in the background was just a scene that I will never forget,” said Christensen.
The other pilot, Colonel Dave Skalicky, 354th operations group commander, says it is his first assignment in the Interior but he has had two previous assignments at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson with the F-15Cs and the F-22s.
“You see kind of that evolution that’s gone on up here and the capabilities that have continued to grow. Again that just all speaks to the strategic importance of this location and what it brings to this theatre,” said Skalicky.
He says having the F-35s is an amazing capability brought to Alaska. “Just an incredibly strategically important location for our country and all our allies in the Pacific region and elsewhere,” said Skalicky.
Skalicky said it was a privilege to be a part of flying the first F-35s to Eielson. “The jets did absolutely fantastic, the whole flight up, it was about a seven hour flight, we were getting refueled with our 168th Air Refueling Wing, [and] the Alaska National Guard that was here. They took us all the way from Fort Worth, Texas where the Lockheed Martin factory is, all the way to Eielson Air Force Base in one sortie. It was absolutely phenomenal, seeing the entire U.S. and then of course up the coast of Alaska, it was just beautiful,” said Skalicky.
He says he is ready to see the team start to train with the F-35 and sharpen their skills with the aircraft. “We’ve got the most fantastic airspace; we’ve got our fifth gen partners, the F-22s down south, our refueling partners, [and] our airborne warning and control system down in Elmendorf. You package that together and Alaska has an incredible amount of combat capability that the F-35 is now going to be a part of, so that’s what I’m looking forward to the most is see the team put all that together and move forward with it,” said Skalicky.
Christiansen says being one of the pilots bringing in the first F-35s is an experience he will never forget.
“It’s a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life, when I was offered the opportunity to come up to Eielson, I immediately volunteered for it. I could not wait to live in Alaska. I have heard a lot of legendary things about the flying here, and so when they said the F-35s were coming to Eielson, I immediately volunteered to be part of the initial cadre. It has been a lot of work trying to get everything ready for the aircraft’s first arrival; but now that it’s here, it’s going to be a lot of excitement and a lot of good times ahead for the next year,” said Christiansen.
Bishop flew F-35s on two assignments before coming to Eielson Air Force Base where he currently flies the F-16. “I was brought here for today, to make it possible, and it’s really exciting to see it happen and I’m extremely grateful for all the support we’ve had. From obviously everyone on the Eielson team, but also in our local community. Their support really made this mission possible, and made it possible for us to grow as a community,” said Bishop.
As they flew the aircraft up from Texas during the COVID-19 pandemic, they worked carefully with medical professionals with the 354th Medical Group on how to keep the pilots and community safe. “The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us, including the Airmen and families here at Eielson Air Force Base. What I am happy to report is as Airmen, we train to operate in a contested environment, and the coronavirus pandemic is just another environment that we have to operate in. Today’s mission success shows how we navigate this current pandemic,” said Bishop.
He hopes the F-35s arriving at Eielson provides inspiration, “to those in our community and across the State of Alaska because we are going to get through this coronavirus pandemic and we are going to emerge even more strong and resilient,” said Bishop.
“This is just the first step in a long journey as we pioneer the air power frontier here in Alaska and at Eielson Air Force Base. In addition to these two F-35s, we have 52 more F-35s in the next eighteen months. We’ll have two combat squadrons here at Eielson Air Force Base and they’re going to operate in the skies of Alaska which is home to the largest training range in the Department of Defense,” said Bishop.
Bishop says soon, the community will start to see the F-35s in the sky. “The aircraft have arrived here and we are going to start flying local training sorties just as soon as we can, so you will see them and hear them in the skies of Alaska soon,” said Bishop.