PHOENIX - The Air Force said Thursday it will assign three additional F-35 squadrons to Luke Air Force Base, bolstering the future of the facility 15 miles west of Phoenix as the military's current fleet of F-16s is retired.
The announcement means six squadrons will be assigned to the base and it will become the Air Force's primary F-35 pilot training base with 144 aircraft, 56th Fighter Wing commander Brig. Gen. Mike Rothstein said.
Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake hailed the decision, calling it great news for the state and cities west of Phoenix.
"It also means that Luke Air Force Base will continue to serve as the premier pilot training facility in the world," McCain said in a statement that also cited its proximity to the Barry M. Goldwater military training range and the support of state and nearby residents for the success of the base.
The new F-35s are set to begin arriving at the base in the spring and the first class of pilots should begin training nine to 12 months later, after the base trains its flight instructors and completes $262 million in new training facilities, Rothstein said. The full complement of 144 planes should be in place in about a decade. U.S. and foreign pilots will train there.
Luke serves as the world's largest training base for the aging F-16 jet and has more than 130 of the aircraft. An F-16 crashed in a farm field near the base on Wednesday after its two pilots parachuted to safety. The pilots reported hitting a bird shortly after takeoff.
"It is not a coincidence that it landed in a field, and the fact that there's a field out there and not a housing development really speaks to some very strong and tough decisions that our elected officials, that our private partners in the west valley, have made to protect Luke Air Force from incompatible land development," Rothstein said. "We're very grateful that it landed in a bunch of dirt."
McCain called the crash a "reminder of the important and dangerous work our airmen do every day at Luke and we are all deeply thankful that no one was hurt."
Officials in Glendale, which includes the base, worried that Luke would be left without a mission as F-16s are retired before it was designated last year as an F-35 training base and assigned 72 jets. The Air Force intends to keep training F-16 pilots at Luke until at least 2023 but the number of planes will slowly decrease.
The city has said the base generates about $2 billion in yearly revenue statewide.
The competition for the F-35 training mission was intense, with bases and cities across the nation vying before the 2012 decision was announced. A partnership of cites west of Phoenix pushed the military to select Luke, touting not only the facilities and good flying weather but community support.
U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., said Thursday he had urged the Air Force to consider basing the three additional squadrons in his hometown of Tucson and was disappointed it was bypassed. The Arizona Air National Guard's 162nd Fighter Wing currently trains U.S. and international pilots to fly the F-16.
"I fully expect however, that as the fleet of F-35s is grown and with sales of the Joint Strike Fighter to our allies that the Air Force will consider the 162nd to train pilots who will fly this plane," he said in a statement.
The F-35 program has been troubled by development snags, production delays and soaring costs. McCain said Thursday he remained cautiously optimistic about the health of the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program.
Three versions of the plane are set to be built, for the Air Force, Marines and Navy, at up to $169 million each. Rothstein said the Air Force version currently cost about $120 million, but that's expected to drop to $90 million as production increases.
The Pentagon wants to buy more than 2,400 of the stealthy, single-engine fighters. "Today's announcement is good news for Luke Air Force Base, good news for Arizona and good news for America," Gov. Jan Brewer said at a press conference at the base Thursday. "And, I might add, bad news for anyone who would like to challenge our nation's defense of freedom."