Wednesday 29th June 2016 saw a significant milestone for the F-35 program, as the first deployment of the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II to the United Kingdom commenced with three aircraft landing at RAF Fairford, including one of the first three examples for the Royal Air Force.

Plans for the F-35 participation at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) and the Farnborough International Airshow (FIA) have been known publically for some time – but following the “will they/won’t they” saga in 2014 (a planned appearance in that year stopped short by a fleetwide grounding following an engine fire on a USAF F-35A), it has always been a case of waiting for wheels to hit the tarmac. Nonetheless, plans have been progressing for three F-35B (2x US Marine Corps and an RAF example) together with two USAF F-35As to display at both RIAT and Farnborough.

Sadly it seems no F-35 news can be presented without some element of delay or pessimism, but for this deployment it was not caused by the F-35. Originally due to arrive two days earlier but delayed due to tanker and weather issues, the three F-35Bs made the crossing supported by a pair of USAF KC-10 tankers (CLEAN51 and CLEAN52) that operated from MacDill AFB, Florida. The F-35As are expected to follow in the coming days.

All three F-35s departed from MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina in the early hours of the 29th June. MCAS Beaufort currently hosts Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 (VMFAT-501). Known as the “Warlords”, as well as training the US Marine Corps F-35B pilots, VMFAT-501 is providing critical training and support to the small number of personnel from the UK’s first F-35 unit, the infamous 617 Sqn, whilst the early days of operation and training on the platform take place. Squadron Leader Hugh Nichols – the first RAF pilot to fly the F-35B and a public voice of the UK’s F-35 program on social media (follow @dt_britain) – has been working with VMFAT-501 and as part of this deployment, becomes the first British pilot to fly the aircraft within the UK.

After the cancellation of the first attempt on the 27th and the second on the 28th (and a close call on the 29th, with one F-35 requiring replacement in the air due to a serviceability issue), the transatlantic flight got underway with the two KC-10A Extender tankers airborne at around 1000L UK time.  The three F-35s “Tabor 1-3 Flight” crossed the Atlantic together with the KC-10s “Clean 51 Flight”, only splitting after making landfall over the United Kingdom.

After arriving in UK airspace, Tabor flight joined with “Jedi” (1(F) Squadron Typhoons) and “Pirate” (100 Squadron Hawk) for a photoshoot, before proceeding to RAF Fairford.

The first UK F-35 landing was made – fittingly – by Royal Air Force example ZM137 (also known as BK-3), landing at Fairford at 8:07pm (2007L), followed by US Marine Corps examples 168727/19 (2008L) and 168726/18 (2010L). Sadly the changeable weather was predictably poor for the arrival, followed by some sun with a typical 5 minute delay.

One of the two tankers (Clean 52, KC-10A 87-0117) accompanied the F-35s into RAF Fairford – arriving at 1958L – whilst the second (Clean 51 87-0119) proceeded on to land at RAF Mildenhall after a brief hold due to weather beyond limits. Also in support was a US Marine Corps KC-130J (168071) under callsign “OTIS80” that departed St Johns in Canada around 2pm UK time, together with a Royal Air Force C-130J as “Ascot 213”, providing the Search and Rescue cover for the transatlantic crossing. OTIS80 landed at Fairford, whilst Ascot 213 recovered to its base at nearby RAF Brize Norton.

For clarity, the following is the list of arrivals at RAF Fairford (in chronological order) on the 29th June 2016:

  • Lockheed Martin KC-130J Hercules 168071 – VMGR-252 US Marine Corps – “Otis 80”
  • Boeing KC-10A Extender 87-0117 – 60th Air Mobility Wing US Air Force – “Clean 52”
  • Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II ZM137 – VMFAT-501 US Marine Corps – “Tabor 1”
  • Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II 168727 – VMFAT-501 US Marine Corps – “Tabor 2”
  • Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II 168726 – VMFAT-501 US Marine Corps – “Tabor 3”

Fulfilling the complement of F-35s deploying to the UK, two USAF F-35A examples are also expected to arrive at the Gloucestershire airbase over the coming days where they will also be displayed at RIAT as part of the USAF Heritage Flight.

The safe arrival of the aircraft to the UK will no doubt be a focal point for not only the aviation enthusiast community but also the wider UK media, and will be seen as a sign of relief for many involved in the planning of the deployment following the events of 2014. The potential for a PR flop was dramatic, especially after the recent flawless Royal Netherlands Air Force F-35A deployment to Leeuwarden Air Base.

We at AeroResource are certainly excited to see their debut UK public airshow appearance at the very beginning of what marks a new chapter in UK military aviation, and will be bringing you more updates on the F-35 as the deployment progresses.

Update 30/06/2016

Thursday 30th June saw the second contingent of the F-35 deployment arrive at RAF Fairford – this time in the form of three United States Air Force F-35A aircraft from the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke AFB, Arizona. Whilst the Royal Netherlands Air Force deployed their two F-35A aircraft to Leeuwarden in May, this marks the first deployment of USAF examples outside of the US.

Supported by a single KC-10 “CLEAN81” (83-0077) and KC-135 “CLEAN82” (58-0098), the former escorted the fighters across the Atlantic landing at RAF Fairford whilst the second tanker turned back to return to the US as the formation left the coast of Canada.

For clarity, the following is the list of arrivals at RAF Fairford (in chronological order) on the 30th June 2016:

  • Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II 12-5042 – 56th Fighter Wing USAF – “Tabor 31”
  • Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II 12-5052 – 56th Fighter Wing USAF – “Tabor 32”
  • Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II 12-5058 – 56th Fighter Wing USAF – “Tabor 33”
  • Boeing KC-10A Extender 83-0077 – 60th Air Mobility Wing US Air Force – “Clean 81”