‘Bedrock’ units to train F-35 pilots in Fort Smith are activated

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 588 views 

Col. Nicholas Ihde visits with media Tuesday (July 2) after a formal ceremony recognizing him as incoming commander of the 85th Fighter Group.

Military units activated during World War II to train pilots for operations in Africa and the Aleutian Islands in what was then the U.S. Territory of Alaska were reactivated Tuesday (July 2) to train foreign military pilots at the Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith.

The 85th Fighter Group and the 57th Fighter Squadron, both under the Eglin, Fla.-based 33rd Fighter Wing, will be based at Ebbing and are the “bedrock” of training for F-35 pilots from numerous U.S. and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) allied countries, noted Rob Ator, a retired Air Force colonel and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission director of Military Affairs.

“Of the three big things that had to happen, we needed this to happen. So now we have the core of the instructors, and then we have to have the runway available, and then we have to have aircraft arrival. And that’s all going to happen by the end of Fall,” Ator said Tuesday.

U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said activation of the units brings a “major” national security action to Fort Smith.

“I am so impressed with the people that are providing the leadership here. These are the top of the top regarding the Air Force, and I think we are really poised to do a tremendous job, which is so important, not only for our region, but for the entire country and for the safety of our nation,” Boozman said after the ceremony.

U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said the ceremony marks a “big step forward for national and world security.”

U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. visis with Major Gen. Johnathan Stubbs, Adjutant General of the Arkansas National Guard, prior to a unit reactivation ceremony held Tuesday (July 2) at Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith.

“What these units are going to be doing is preparing that next generation of pilots that will deploy and protect democracy around the world. That is an incredible undertaking and a tremendous responsibility that will be borne by the people that will work right out here in Fort Smith, Arkansas,” Womack told Talk Business & Politics.

Ebbing, home to the 188th Wing in Fort Smith and co-located with the Fort Smith Regional Airport, was selected in March 2023 by the U.S. Air Force to be the long-term pilot training center supporting F-16 and F-35 fighter planes purchased by Singapore, Switzerland, Poland, Germany, Finland and other countries participating in the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. Initial estimates are that 1,500 military personnel and family members will be associated with the new center once it is fully operational.

The original plan for the base to support 36 planes has been amended to accommodate 46 fighter jets. The most recent estimate is that the training center will cost $850 million when fully operational. Arkansas Gov. Sarah Sanders, who spoke at Tuesday’s ceremony in Fort Smith, indicated the cost could rise to $1 billion and produce a $450 million annual economic impact for the region and state.

Air Force officials have said F-35 planes and pilots from Poland will begin training in Fort Smith in September, with planes arriving in December and with the full complement of planes from Poland estimated to arrive in Fort Smith in September 2025. F-35 pilots and planes from Finland could follow after December. In June/July 2026, planes and pilots from Singapore and Germany are scheduled to arrive in Fort Smith. Swiss F-35 planes and pilots could arrive in April/May 2027. Pilots and planes from Finland and Greece are also to be part of the training mix.

Several hundred gathered Tuesday to see Col. Nicholas Ihde assume command of the 85th Fighter Group, and Lt. Col. Jonathan Hassell assume command of the 57th Fighter Squadron, with 33rd Fighter Wing Commander Col. Dave Skalicky presiding.

Gov. Sarah Sanders visits with (from left) U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, and U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., after a unit reactivation ceremony held Tuesday (July 2) at Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith.

Prior to moving to Fort Smith, Ihde was the U.S. Air Force service deputy at the F-35 Joint Program Office, where he was the focal point for all F-35 related matters involving the Air Force. He has worked as an F-35A and F-16 evaluator, instructor, weapons officer, and operational test pilot. He has multiple combat tours in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, with more than 270 combat hours. Ihde is a combat-experienced command pilot with more than 2,280 hours in various aircraft.

During his remarks, Ihde noted that the task for the newly activated units will be to engage new active duty missions on an active Air Guard base, work on a civilian airport with civilian authorities, work with numerous foreign military officials, and do all that in a community that has not had an active manned mission in more than a decade.

“Does that sound like a challenge?” Ihde said, drawing laughter and applause.

Gov. Sanders also drew laughter when telling Ihde, a University of Florida graduate, that he would get help with his “pig sooie,” the call of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks.

Hassell joins the 57th as the previous 33rd Fighter Wing, Detachment 1 commander. During three deployments, he has flown 127 combat sorties, earning several decorations. He is a combat-experienced command pilot with more than 2,000 hours in the F-35A, F-22A, and other aircraft.

Hassell thanked Gov. Sanders, Boozman, Womack, Fort Smith Mayor McGill, Ator, and Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tim Allen for their past and ongoing help in getting the center created at Ebbing.

According to information from the Air Force, the 85th was initially created in February 1942 to prepare pilots for what would be Operation Torch – the invasion of North Africa in November 1942. The unit would have various roles and designations until being deactivated in June 2006.

The 57th was created in January 1941 and based in California to provide air defenses for the West Coast. It would be transferred to Alaska in June 1942 to participate in the Aleutian Campaign. The unit, which had an intercept mission during the Cold War and recorded more than 1,000 air intercepts with Russian (USSR) aircraft, was deactivated in March 1995.

A June 20 report from Air Force Times provided information about the pilot training center. Following are a few key points from the report.

• The base will build new F-35 pilots from scratch, with students who have already qualified to fly fighters but are getting their first taste of the fifth-generation plane itself.

• The Air Force expects about four pilots will graduate from Ebbing in 2025 before growing to about three dozen graduates each year through the end of the decade.

• Project officials are working to expand the existing training airspace at Ebbing. The site may bring in low-cost threat emitters, or hardware that replicates surface-to-air missile systems so pilots can learn to evade enemy air defenses.

• Trainees will start their seven-month Joint Strike Fighter journey at Eglin – the Air Force’s closest active duty F-35 site – where they’ll be exposed to the F-35′s controls and tactics in classroom lessons and simulated sorties. The program will be split between Eglin and Ebbing until Ebbing builds a flight simulator.

• Singapore, whose forces will be permanently stationed at Ebbing, is bringing the F-35B, the vertical takeoff-and-landing version of the jet also flown by the U.S. Marine Corps.