First F-35A for Lakenheath enters production

Lockheed Martin’s production facility in Fort Worth, Texas, has started manufacturing the first F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighter for the UK-based 48th Fighter Wing (FW) at RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk.

An image released by the US Air Force (USAF) on April 30 showed the forward fuselage section of the aircraft – serial 19-5474 (c/n AF-302) – at Fort Worth, ready to begin the assembly process on the production line. The aircraft is scheduled to be delivered to the 48th FW at RAF Lakenheath later this year, highlighting the fast pace of production at the facility.

RAF Lakenheath's first F-35A [USAF]
Gen Tod D Wolters, commander of US European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, stands in front of one of the first sections of F-35A Lightning II - serial 19-5474 (c/n AF-302) - the first for the 495th Fighter Squadron ‘Valkyries’ at RAF Lakenheath, in the factory at Fort Worth, Texas, on April 30. USAF

It will be the first for a new unit under the 48th FW – the 495th Fighter Squadron (FS) – which was announced as the designation for the unit on September 15, 2020. The 495th traces its lineage back to World War Two, having originally been established on January 15, 1941, as the 495th Fighter Bomber Squadron as part of the 48th Fighter Bomber Group at Key Field, Mississippi.

The unit had previously been based at Lakenheath and last flew as the 495th Tactical Fighter Squadron with the General Dynamics F-111F but was deactivated on December 13, 1991. At that time, the unit had the nickname ‘Thundervarks’, in reference to the F-111’s Aardvark nickname, but as this was not seen to be relevant for an F-35-equipped unit, it was decided that a rename was in order.

On February 16, 2021, the USAF revealed that the unit will be known as the ‘Valkyries’. The nickname was selected after the public was invited to submit an appropriate name for the unit last autumn. Thousands of votes were whittled down to five finalists, with ‘Valkyries’ being selected over the four other shortlisted names – ‘Archangels’, ‘Sabres’, ‘Sentinels’ and ‘Swordsmen’. The 495th will be reactivated this summer, prior to the arrival of the first F-35As this autumn.

USAF F-35As [USAF/Staff Sgt Andrew Lee]
The F-35A will soon become a common sight at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, as 48 examples are planned to be operated from the British base, split between two squadrons under the umbrella of the 48th Fighter Wing. USAF/Staff Sgt Andrew Lee

During a visit to the Fort Worth facility on April 30, Gen Tod D Wolters, commander of US European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), said: [The] F-35 greatly sharpens our indications and warnings, command and control, and mission command. Alongside current and future investments by our allies and partners, we look forward to the arrival of this capability at the 48th FW later this year.”

The 495th FS will be the first US-operated Lightning II unit to be based in Europe. Equipped with 24 aircraft, it will be joined at a later date by a second, yet-to-be-formed F-35A squadron. This unit will also operate two-dozen aircraft and will fall under the umbrella of the 48th FW at Lakenheath.

The two new F-35A squadrons will join three Boeing F-15 Eagle units already in operation with the 48th FW at RAF Lakenheath: the 492nd FS ‘Madhatters’ with F-15E Strike Eagles; the 493rd FS ‘Grim Reapers’ with F-15C/Ds; and the 494th FS ‘Panthers’, also with F-15Es.