Going Dutch: First RNLAF F-35A arrives at Leeuwarden

The first operational F-35A Lightning II for the Koninklijke Luchtmacht (KLu, Royal Netherlands Air Force) has arrived at Leeuwarden AB (The Netherlands) on 31 October 2019. Strikingly, this event took place a little over forty years after the first arrival of the predecessor of the F-35, first the F-16 Fighting Falcon for the KLu arrived at Leeuwarden, in June 1979.

Dutch F-35A [Stephan de Bruijn]
Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II F-009 arrives at Leeuwarden AB on October 31. Stephan de Bruijn

In a nutshell

On 17 July 2002, the Dutch government became a partner in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program (JSF). On 28 May 2010, it was decided that the F-35 was the right aircraft as the successor of the KLu F-16 fleet, but in March 2011 the Dutch budget office calculated that the F-35 could become a financial risk. After a political rigmarole it was decided on 5 July 2012 that the KLu would get the F-35s. Only a month later, on 20 August 2012, the first Dutch F-35A (serial F-001, construction number AN-1) made its maiden flight from Fort Worth (TX), F-002 (AN-2) followed on 27 June 2013. Both Dutch owned aircraft became already part of the test programme, although it took until 17 September 2013 that the USD 5,5 billion (5 billion euro) contract for 37 (including those two-test aircraft) was officially signed. A month later, it was already clear that the whole programme would yield some 5,000 jobs within the Dutch economy. On 20 December 2013, then major Laurens-Jan "Sjoak" Vijge became the first Dutch F-35 pilot, and on that day, he made his first solo flight on the Lightning II.

Dutch F-35A [Stephan de Bruijn]
Lightning strikes in blue skies over Leeuwarden. Stephan de Bruijn

Through 2014, Dutch maintenance personnel started their training and several Dutch companies were awarded with major contracts for the F-35. On 6 November 2014, the KLu established their first squadron, 323 Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) at Edwards AFB, California. The squadron received both F-001 and F-002 in their inventory and joined partners US and UK in OT&E works from Edwards.

On 23 May 2016, the Dutch became the first with a F-35 transatlantic ocean crossing from the States to Europe (the other way around was already done by the Italians), when F-001 and F-002 participated at Leeuwarden air show. The deployment took three weeks and contained multiple flights over the Dutch countryside.

F-35A RNLAF Fighter History Flypast [Stephan de Bruijn]
F-35A F-009 joined a Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hunter and Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon in celebrating four generations of RNLAF fighter aircraft. Stephan de Bruijn

On 30 November 2018, 308th Fighter Squadron "Emerald Knights" was established at Luke AFB (AZ). The squadron became responsible for training of Dutch F-35 pilots and received in short succession F-003, 004, 005, 006, 007 and 008. By mid-2019, the actual training started and in the same period the Operational Test and Evaluation Programme at Edwards was coming to an end.

In May 2019, again two Dutch F-35As made an Atlantic crossing, this time they dropped inert bombs at Vliehors range, at the conclusion of their long-range flight before landing at Volkel air base. Both aircraft joined the Dutch Air Force Open Day's in which the public again could meet their Lightning IIs.

RNLAF F-35A [Stephan de Bruijn]
F-009 taxis along after landing at Leeuwarden AB. Stephan de Bruijn

In the fall of 2019, the Dutch government decided to buy another nine F-35As - so the fleet will increase to 46 Aircraft.

So not a real first on 31 October 2019, but F-009 made history as the first Italian assembled F-35A for the KLu as well as the first operational aircraft that arrived at Leeuwarden for permanent stay. The aircraft arrived directly from its birthing-ground Cameri (Italy) in style, as part of a formation flight of a Spitfire, Hunter and a Fighting Falcon. The fire department made a little mistake when they welcomed the F-35A on the platform (with thousands of spectators including many VIPs and the Dutch Minister of Defence, the Dutch Defence Secretary and the whole defence command attending). As they were called on duty due to a precautionary landing of an F-16B at Leeuwarden, only minutes before the ceremony started, they forgot on their return to the ceremony to switch back to water, so F-009 was sprayed with foam...

RNLAF F-35A [Stephan de Bruijn]
One foamy entrance: F-009 parked up after being accidentially sprayed with foam instead of water. Stephan de Bruijn

F-009 will now be hangered for a while, for acceptance checks by its owner, Defensie Materieel Organisatie (DMO, Defense Material Command). After these checks, it will be formally handed over to the KLu and will assigned to 322 Squadron "Polly Grey". During the acceptance period, the F-35A will not take the Dutch skies. The second Dutch Lightning II at Leeuwarden (F-010) is expected in December 2019.

It is expected that 322 Squadron will be ready in Q3/2021 with the subsequent important Initial Operational Capability in Q4/2021. In June 2022, the first F-35A is expected at Volkel air base. Full Operational Capability is expected in 2024.