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As Airmen from Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County continue operations to test the combat-worthiness of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a new milestone was set this week with the first bombs dropping from the F-35 over a test range in the remote deserts of Utah.

Airmen from the 388th and 419th fighter wings dropped laser-guided bombs at the Utah Test and Training Range last week, marking the first time an F-35 Lightning II combat unit has deployed weapons from the F-35A.

Lt. Col. George Watkins, the 34th Fighter Squadron commander, said dropping weapons from the F-35 allows pilots to more fully engage the aircraft and confirm that everything works as planned.

 “This is significant because we’re building the confidence of our pilots by actually dropping something off the airplane instead of simulating weapon employment,” Watkins said.

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Lt. Col. George Watkins, the 34th Fighter Squadron commander, drops a GBU-12 laser-guided bomb from an F-35A Lightning II at the Utah Test and Training Range Feb. 25, 2016. The 34th FS is the Air Force’s first combat unit to employ munitions from the F-35A. (Jim Haseltine/Special to The Pulse)

Eglin is the homebase for the F-35 school house, where hundreds of pilots and thousands of maintainers from multiple branches of the U.S. armed forces and several allied countries are undergoing training to fly the aircraft once the program becomes operational and ready for combat deployment.

Eglin Airmen are continuing ongoing testing of the aircraft in Idaho this month to put the aircraft — and its crew and equipment — through a series of operational tests to determine just how capable the aircraft is in a forward deployed environment.

Airman Juan Rivas, Senior Airman Darion White and Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Kalsbeek, all 34th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron load crew members, prepare to equip an F-35A Lightning II with a GBU-12 laser-guided bomb at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Feb. 23, 2016. (R. Nial Bradshaw/Special to The Pulse)

Airman Juan Rivas, Senior Airman Darion White and Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Kalsbeek, all 34th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron load crew members, prepare to equip an F-35A Lightning II with a GBU-12 laser-guided bomb at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Feb. 23, 2016. (R. Nial Bradshaw/Special to The Pulse)

Once testing is complete, the Air Force is expected to declare initial operational capability of the F-35 between August and December. IOC will be announced when the Air Force deems the F-35 combat capable.

Lt. Col. Darrin Dronoff, the director of the F-35 Program Integration Office, said that while this achievement is a significant step, the milestone goes beyond that mark.

“The pilots and weapons loaders in the 388th and 419th fighter wings are perfecting their skills not only to prove aircraft capabilities, but they’ll also be the Airmen called upon to take the F-35 to combat, whenever that call may come,” he said.

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