Wednesday June 6, 2018 marks a historic event in UK Aviation with the first batch of Royal Air Force F-35B Lightning IIs arriving at their home base of RAF Marham, Norfolk. Whilst public opinion may be divided on the long awaited delivery of the Lightning II, the arrival of the first four aircraft welcomes the most advanced combat system to be fielded by the RAF and, soon, the Fleet Air Arm.
It has been a long and arduous 12 years since the United Kingdom announced that it would acquire a total of 138 F-35s in a procurement that has never been far from controversy. With the ever-escalating costs associated with delivery of the complete F-35 system, along with the political ‘flip-flop’ between British procurement of the Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) ‘B’ variant and the more traditional Catapult Assisted Take-Off Barrier Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) ‘C’ variant, it is a type that has certainly attracted more negative publicity than positive.
That said, it still represents the UK’s first, and only, fifth-generation fighter programme and its arrival to RAF Marham is a significant milestone in the future operations of both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy.
The Norfolk station, having been selected as the primary location for Royal Air Force F-35 operations, has been preparing for the types arrival for the past 18 months. Known as Project Anvil, alterations to the station are the largest scale changes to have been undertaken since World War Two, and represent a significant transformation to the base which has been home to the Royal Air Force’s Tornado Force in recent years. New buildings, runway resurfacing and infrastructure improvements are just some of the elements that comprise a £250 million project undertaken by a workforce of some 1,200. The first completed element of Project Anvil saw the Lightning Operations Centre opened by Her Majesty the Queen earlier this year.
Of course, the arrival of the F-35B to RAF Marham isn’t the first visit of either the type, or an RAF example, to the UK with the 2016 edition of the Royal International Air Tattoo seeing the UK debut. During that visit, a single RAF F-35B – ZM137 – crossed the Atlantic in the company of two US Marine Corps examples to display at both RIAT and Farnborough. It is however, the first time that the Lightning II will call the UK ‘home’ as the service move towards declaring Initial Operating Capability (IOC) which is currently planned to happen by December of this year for land based operations with carrier based operations due to follow by 2020.
Up until this point, training on the F-35B for British crews has been undertaken at MCAS Beaufort in South Carolina with personnel from both services having been stationed there throughout. With 617 Sqn reforming in April 2018, the legendary ‘Dambusters’ is to become the first frontline unit to be based in the UK with the type.
Departing from MCAS Beaufort, the four Lightning IIs were supported by three Voyagers and a single A400M out of RAF Brize Norton for the historic transatlantic flight. The crossing was originally due to take place the previous day, Tuesday 5th, however poor weather on the planned route led to a 24 hour delay. Taking approximately 8.5 hours and 9 in-flight refuels, the following aircraft were involved in the crossing, and was referred to as Thunder Trail 01/18 –
Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II ZM145 – callsign RRR9511
Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II ZM146 – callsign RRR9512
Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II ZM147 – callsign RRR9513
Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II ZM148 – callsign RRR9514
Airbus A330 Voyager ZZ330 – (departing from Charleston International Airport and landing at Gander International Airport, Canada) – callsign RRR9101
Airbus A330 Voyager ZZ335 – (departing from Gander International Airport, Canada and landing at RAF Brize Norton) – callsign RRR9102
Airbus A330 Voyager ZZ331 – (departing from Gander International Airport, Canada and landing at RAF Brize Norton) – callsign RRR9103
Airbus A400M Atlas ZM401 – (departing from Bangor International Airport and landing at RAF Brize Norton) – callsign RRR4084
With the first aircraft arriving safely at RAF Marham, this represents just four of the 48 confirmed purchased aircraft to be delivered with a further five expected to make the crossing in the coming weeks. For RAF Marham, and the future operating capability of both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, there are exciting times ahead.