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​Lt. Col. George Watkins, 34th Fighter Squadron commander, drops a GBU-12 laser-guided bomb from an F-35A at the Utah Test and Training Range Feb. 25, 2016. Air Force photo by Jim Haseltine.

​A combat-coded F-35A assigned to Hill AFB, Utah, dropped a GBU-12 laser-guided bomb over the Utah Test and Training Range last week, marking another first on the way to initial operational capability for the Air Force variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. The F-35A has only ever dropped weapons in a testing environment. “This is significant because we’re building the confidence of our pilots by actually dropping something off the airplane instead of simulating weapon employment,” said Lt. Col. George Watkins, commander of the 34th Fighter Squadron, in a release. Lt. Col. Darrin Dronoff, director of Hill’s F-35 program integration office, noted that the members of the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings, which participated in the mission, will “be the airmen called upon to take the F-35 to combat, whenever that call may come.” The Air Force is expected to declare IOC between August and December. Aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin told reporters during AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium last week the company was aiming for the “front end” of that window. F-35 pilots at Hill will begin flying in the four-ship formation—the standard combat configuration—as early as March, according to the release.