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HILL AIR FORCE BASE — For nearly a year, brand new F-35s have been showing up at Hill Air Force Base. They're replacing the F-16s that have roared over northern Utah since 1979.
As Hill prepares to say a final goodbye to its F-16s, KSL talked to pilots about its legacy, their future with the F-35, and went for an hourlong flight in the F-16.
The Viper's Legacy
Hill Air Force Base was home to the Air Force's first operational squadron of F-16s. At the time, the manufacturer had yet to come up with a name, so the pilots nicknamed it the "Viper." It was later officially named the "Fighting Falcon," but pilots still refer to it by the name they gave it.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Michael "Brillo" Brill said his interest in jets went back further than he could remember.
"I don't have any recollection of this, but my mom said one day I just came home and announced I was going to be a fighter pilot," Brill said.
He was on base when the first F-16 was delivered to Hill.
"The real 'wow' moment was the first time you actually flew the airplane," Brill said. "I remember taking off right traffic at Hill Air Force Base, turning out over the Great Salt Lake and pushing the power up, and just going, 'Wow!' The amount of thrust you had, it was like being in a rocket ship."
Initially, the Viper was meant to fly only in good weather during daylight hours. Over time, though, it saw several improvements.
"Over the course of about five years, we got smart bombs, GPS bombs, laser-guided bombs, datalink systems," Brill said. We're flying with night vision goggles, we got electronic rays that can shut down the threats. Every day you came in, it was like there was something new you had to read and study and figure out how to fight with the jet the next day."
Those improvements, Brill said, added up to a revolutionary fighter jet.
"It really redesigned how we went to war," Brill said. "In the late 70s, early 80s, when I started flying this, all of our attacks were built as packages. We would put all the airplanes in a big group and we'd put the air-to-air flyers with them and the jammers with them and we'd send these big groups of airplanes in to try and hit the target.
"This changed all that because, now, we would just go off on our own four-ship. We didn't need anybody to get us to the target. In fact, the classic air-to-ground guy hides from the enemy and evades them and sneaks into the target, sneaks out. The F-16 became a predator. We started looking and seeking out the enemy."
Flying the Viper
Lt. Col. James "Flash" Frickel said flying was a childhood interest for him.
"In kindergarten, I wanted to be a farmer and then from first grade on, I wanted to be a pilot," he said.
Today, Frickel is the commander of the 466th Fighter Squadron. They are the Air Force Reserve squadron on the base. He has flown the F-16 for 20 years.
"It handles like a dream. It's a sports car. It's a pilot's dream," Frickel said.
Frickel took KSL reporter Sean Moody on an hourlong flight across northern Utah to demonstrate what the Viper can do.
On a late August afternoon, the Viper took off from Hill Air Force base, pulling up sharply and turning west toward the Utah Test and Training Range over the West Desert. On the way, another F-16 formed up on the Viper's left wing. Shortly after, the Viper pulled away and two F-35s approached in formation. The new fifth-generation fighter jets flew along the F-16's wing for several minutes before peeling off again.
After the formation flying was finished, Frickel demonstrated the F-16's maneuverability. The F-16 was built to take nine Gs (nine times the force of gravity), but Frickel didn't push the reporter that hard. The plane rolled into a 4.5 Gs turn to the left, then a five G turn to the right. Then, the airplane swooped lower to the ground before Frickel pulled the stick back and put the airplane into a climb straight up into the sky. After a few more minutes of maneuvering, the Viper headed east, back to a landing at Hill Air Force Base.
The week after that flight, people from across Hill Air Force Base came together for an official farewell to the airplane at the "Viper Out" ceremony. While the airmen are looking forward to flying with the latest technology in the F-35, they said it is tough to say goodbye to the Viper.
"Strapping on the F-16 and going out and flying in training or flying into harm's way, it becomes kind of a part of you," said 421st Fighter Squadron commander Lt. Col. Michael "Danger" Meyer. "When you think about the eventuality of not doing that again, it's certainly going to be bittersweet."
At the same time, Meyer said the occasion makes the airmen stop and think about what they've accomplished in the jet.
"It's a pretty amazing story when you talk about just since 2001, airmen from Hill Air Force Base in the 388th and the 419th Fighter Wings have deployed 32 times," Meyer said.
The F-16s from Hill Air Force Base will move on to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. People who live near Hill may still see the jet from time to time, though. The Ogden Air Logistics Complex at Hill does maintenance on several jets from across the country, including F-16s.
Hill Air Force Base's future with the F-35
As F-16s head south, they are being replaced by the brand new F-35A. It is a fifth-generation fighter with a heavy emphasis on technology in the cockpit. Just as Hill Air Force Base was home to the Air Force's first operational F-16 squadron, it is also home to the first operational F-35 squadron.
"It's like using a flip phone or a big block cellphone that you had in 1995 versus the brand new iPhone," said Lt. Col. Yosef Morris, who is the commander of the 4th Fighter Squadron.
Morris said the upgrade in technology is what really sets the jet apart.
"You have a lot more information at your fingertips in the F-35. The way that the information is presented to you as the pilot and everything that the airplane is seeing in its sensors is a generation different than the F-16," he said.
That advance in technology also means advances in maintenance. Capt. Christina Merritt is in charge of flight line maintenance for the F-35 and says maintenance procedures they develop at Hill will have an impact across the Air Force.
"It's got to be one of the most gratifying jobs anybody could ever have," Merritt said. "Literally every day, you can watch the aircraft take off and know that you had a piece in that."
Some call the F-35 a "flying computer" because technology is so integrated into the airplane. Merritt said updates to the airplane are faster.
"On legacy platforms like the F-16, it takes time, a lot of time. If they see an issue with the tech data that they use to fix the aircraft, it takes years to make changes. In this program, at times, we can make changes to the tech data within months," she said.
The base is still taking deliveries of F-35, with several more coming each month.
"It's going to ramp up and be back to the full strength that it was 10 or 15 years ago when there were three or four F-16 squadrons here," Morris said.
By the end of 2019, Hill Air Force Base expects to have 78 F-35s.