The UK Lightning Force’s next unit, No 207 Squadron – charged with training British pilots on the fifth-generation fighter – has arrived back in the UK. Prior to the transatlantic flight by six F-35Bs to RAF Marham, Norfolk, Wg Cdr Scott ‘Mox’ Williams, the UK’s senior national representative at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, spoke to AFM about the return home.
When interviewed in May, ‘Mox’ confirmed that No 207 Squadron – motto: Semper paratus, ‘Always prepared’ – was on track to be officially re-established and to return to active service at Marham on August 1. At the time, there were five UK F-35Bs available on VMFAT-501 and a sixth was scheduled to be delivered in late June. Soon after that aircraft was taken on strength, the UK Lightning contingent was able to head for home, completing the same transatlantic trail that brought No 617 Squadron to the UK last summer.
Wg Cdr Williams explained: “We aim to have the jets ‘on deck’ at Marham and then plan to immediately set about getting ourselves and the aircraft indoctrinated into the station and ready to fly shortly afterwards; in fact, my aimpoint right now is to fly the first 207 Squadron sortie on August 1, the day we re-form.”
After that, the squadron plans to steadily increase its flying rates so that it’s ready to begin training its own students at the beginning of September. ‘Mox’ reflected: “We’re moving our families and possessions back from the US, not just the aircraft, so this is a significant change, both professionally and domestically, affecting everyone involved.”
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Once up and running at its new home, the OCU will have eight instructors (including the officer commanding) fully integrated and teaching all F-35 missions. There are currently four UK Lightning students at Beaufort, all of whom have previous experience on the F/A-18C/D Hornet, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Typhoon or Tornado GR4. Wg Cdr Williams continued: “We don’t have any ab initio UK pilots on the courses right now; the first (and last) of these went through VMFAT-501 in late 2017 and are now flying on 617 Squadron at Marham.”The first ground school course at Marham starts on July 1 and will include next two ab initio students; a flying phase will begin a couple of months later.
Reflecting the ‘Joint Force’ nature of the UK F-35B programme, approximately 58% of UK personnel are Royal Air Force and 42% are Royal Navy. The wing commander added: “I wouldn’t say there is a ‘typical’ Lightning pilot candidate. The majority are highly motivated pilots that have proven their skills and worth in prior frontline tours and have harboured a desire to transition to the Lightning for a number of years. On that basis alone I suppose you could say that the candidate quality is extremely high, and this has been my experience over the last few years. The same goes for our enlisted personnel.”
The Marham-based Lightning Force will maintain a pooled fleet aircraft shared between Nos 207 and 617 Squadrons – to be joined by the Fleet Air Arm’s 809 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), planned to be established at the base in 2023. Wg Cdr Williams said: “We’re going for a ‘wing’ approach to producing aircraft to meet the daily and weekly needs of not just the operational squadron but the OCU as well. There are a lot of other factors that need considering beyond just the flying, so coming up with an optimised and sustainable flying schedule is a key part of the synergy we will generate by combining both 207 and 617 Squadrons’ engineering output.”
At the start, No 207 Squadron plans to work alongside No 617 Squadron, making use of its facilities. However, as Mox reflected: “Our core business is fundamentally different and only the OCU’s F-35B qualified flying instructors will teach new students.” Although No 617 Squadron will also train on a daily basis, the OCU will be following a set syllabus that covers all Lightning missions and capabilities. Therefore, “the operational squadron will be engaged in more focused training on a different syllabus”. Before long, the OCU will add more specialised post-graduate courses, including the Qualified Weapons Instructor and Flying Instructor courses. “With their new-found expertise, these graduates will typically either return to an operational squadron or remain on the OCU to teach future students and post-graduate courses,” the wing commander added.
Ultimately, the OCU will feed new Lightning pilots to both No 617 Squadron and 809 NAS – with no differences in the syllabus. Mox confirmed: “We will train every OCU student in all the missions and give them all the knowledge they need to be tactical frontline pilots on either 617 or 809 Squadrons. We’ll also be giving students their carrier qualification as we plan to embark twice a year in HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales (with which 207 Squadron is affiliated).” Although pilots will know which squadron they are destined to join before they start the course, this can be subject to change – both frontline units will operate with mixed crews.
The full story of No 207 Squadron’s preparations at MCAS Beaufort appeared in the July issue of AFM, available here and as an app. A report on the squadron’s return to Marham will feature in the forthcoming September issue.