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UK’s first Lightnings on their way to RAF Marham

Photo: An F-35B flown by RAF pilot Sqn Ldr Hugh Nichols on its first transatlantic crossing, accompanied by two USMC F-35B aircraft from MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina, in June 2016.


Four of the UK’s first F-35Bs are arriving in the country today to constitute the Royal Air Force’s No 617 Squadron ‘Dambusters’. The jets are due to touch down at RAF Marham, Norfolk, later this evening.

The Lightnings are being supported on their transatlantic flight by three RAF Voyager tankers: ZZ335 and 331 flying from Gander and ZZ330 from Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina. Search and rescue support is being provided by an RAF Atlas C1 ZM401 flying from Bangor.

The four jets had been planned to touch down in the UK yesterday, but poor weather over the Atlantic resulted in a delay of a little over 24 hours.

No 617 Squadron ‘Dambusters’ officially stood up on April 17 at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina. A month later, on May 16, the famous unit commemorated the 75th anniversary of Operation Chastise – the dams raid.

In recent months, the squadron, which is led by Wg Cdr John ‘Butch’ Butcher, has focused on returning to RAF Marham. Nine of the 11 UK F-35Bs currently on strength at Beaufort are expected to arrive in the UK for the RAF’s centenary celebrations this summer, including a flypast over London.

No 617 Squadron commanding officer, Wg Cdr John Butcher at MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina. Crown Copyright

As Air Commodore David ‘Bradders’ Bradshaw, the Lightning Force commander since May 2017, told AFM earlier this year: “It is going to be an exciting year for RAF Marham – so many of us are eagerly anticipating the F-35’s arrival.”

The jets arrive in the UK as RAF Marham undergoes a £550m facelift under Project Anvil. The Second World War base is being transformed into a state-of-the-art facility that will eventually house three F-35B squadrons. One of the old Tornado hangars has already been demolished to make way for maintenance, logistics and a headquarters and one of the four remaining wartime hangars will be demolished to make way for more F-35 infrastructure.

No 617 Squadron heading home won’t mean an end to UK operations at MCAS Beaufort, where the squadron is working up under the Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 501. “We will still leave a footprint out there, after 617 come back, because 207 Squadron, the Lightning Operational Conversion Unit (OCU), will stand up in mid-2019 and then head to RAF Marham. Eventually 617 Squadron will work up 809 Naval Aviation Squadron [NAS], which will split away and form in mid-2023.”

A UK F-35Bs practices aerial refuelling from a No 10 Squadron Voyager over the US east coast. The mission was required to train tanking procedure ahead of the transatlantic flights this summer. Crown Copyright

Carrier trials

Later this year, the UK F-35Bs will go aboard the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth for the first time. Martin Peters, BAE Systems’ F-35 flight test manager and test lead for STOVL (short take-off and landing), told AFM: “The HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier is the big one for us this year. It will encompass most of the team. Then into 2019 we will also start our integration work for the new Meteor [beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile, BVRAAM] and SPEAR Cap 3 [Selective Precision Effects At Range Capability 3] weapon in order to deliver a phase one capability for those assets in 2021.”

The F-35 System Development and Demonstration (SDD) project included two UK-specific weapons – the Raytheon Paveway IV precision-guided bomb and MBDA AIM-132 ASRAAM (Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile), which will be fielded as part of the UK initial operating capability (IOC).

Crew from HMS Queen Elizabeth observe and work with the F-35B at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, in advance of carrier trials on the Royal Navy vessel later this year. USMC

Look out for the forthcoming July issue of AFM for full coverage of the F-35B’s arrival at Marham and in-depth assessment of the UK-specific flight test programme to date.

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