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Air Force recommends F-35s for Luke, Tucson still a contender

An F-35 Lightning II the Joint Strike Fighter, takes off for its first flight as part of system development testing Dec. 15, 2006, in Fort Worth, Texas. Three variants of the aircraft are being developed for the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy. (Lockheed Martin photo/Tom Harvey)

(Lockheed Martin photo/Tom Harvey)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- U.S. Air Force officials announced the service's recommendations for where to base the first F-35 Lightning II aircraft July 29 . Though Tucson was not among the three semi-finalist locations, it remains a viable candidate.

For F-35 training, the Air Force named Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., as the preferred alternative. As F-35 operational bases, both Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and Burlington Air Guard Station, Vt., got nods.

Last October, officials announced the Arizona Air National Guard unit at Tucson International Airport was one of the top five locations under consideration for F-35 Joint Strike Fighter training. Six other bases were on a short list for F-35 operations.

The recent announcement indicates the Air Force is narrowing the field, yet a final record of decision is expected for spring of 2011.

"We were certainly hoping to be one of the first bases to get the F-35, but the Air Force's recommendation to base them at Luke for training is very encouraging," said Brig. Gen. Greg Stroud, 162nd Fighter Wing commander. "Luke and Tucson enjoy all of the same ingredients that make for perfect pilot training conditions; weather, airspace, ranges and fantastic community support. Our chances for F-35s in the future are as strong as ever."

In March, the Air Force conducted a series of public scoping meetings in Southern Arizona as part of an F-35 Environmental Impact Statement. According to Stroud, the environmental study will continue as planned and a draft statement will be available for public comment later this year.

"We encourage the community to continue their participation in the F-35 basing process. The study being conducted now will apply when the Air Force takes another look at Tucson as future home for new fighter," he said.

The three installations recommended today move a step closer to housing the first 250 to 300 F-35s scheduled for delivery through 2019. With a total of 1,763 F-35s scheduled for purchase through 2035, Tucson will have numerous opportunities to host the new jet.

"We train international pilots, and Luke trains active duty U.S. pilots in the F-16. Their need to ramp up F-35 training will come much sooner than our need. By all indications from the Air Force's survey of our capability to maintain and operate F-35s, we're a strong possibility in the next round. I'm confident that the F-35 will one day be part of the wing's mission," Stroud said.

The F-35 is the next generation strike fighter bringing cutting-edge technologies to the battle space of the future. In the Air Force, the F-35 will primarily service an air-to-ground role; replace aging F-16 and A-10 aircraft while complementing the F-22. The Navy and Marine Corps plan on using the F-35, along with international partners.

The Arizona Air National Guard has flown fighters from its base in Tucson since 1956 when the unit flew the Korean War era F-86A. Through six decades and seven different fighter aircraft the unit has served in air sovereignty and fighter training missions.

The last time a new aircraft came to the wing was in 1985 when the unit accepted its first F-16 Fighting Falcon.