THE FIRST UK F-35B Lightnings have departed their home base of RAF Marham, Norfolk, to return to the US for operational testing with the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08).
The three jets, belonging to the famed 'Dambusters' squadron, left the UK on October 9 for the transatlantic flight to Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort, South Carolina. The aircraft from the Lightning Force will become the first UK jets to join the carrier at sea when they begin the WESTLANT 19 trials in the waters off US east coast this autumn. The aircraft which departed RAF Marham were ZM148 [BK-14], ZM149 [BK-15] and ZM151 [BK-17].
Three No 617 Squadron F-35Bs depart RAF Marham to join No 17 Squadron Lightnings at MCAS Beaufort for WESTLANT 19.
The aircraft transiting from the RAF Marham will join three more UK F-35B's from No 17 Squadron, currently based at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), California, which departed to MCAS Beaufort on October 7. All aircraft will arrive at Beaufort, before embarking on HMS Queen Elizabeth in the coming days.
The F-35B completed an eight-week programme of fixed-wing First of Class Flight Trials – or FOCFT(FW) – on board HMS Queen Elizabeth on November 18 last year. This evaluation involved specially instrumented F-35Bs BF-04 and BF-05 from the Integrated Test Force at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, rather than UK jets.
The UK Lightning’s debut cruise will encompass the first phase of Operational Testing (OT-1) that examines service-optimised employment of the fifth-generation fighter in the maritime environment. The ultimate aim is to ensure that the capability already declared for land-based Initial Operating Capability (IOC) can be just as effectively employed from the deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth.
Speaking to AFM this summer, Cdr James Blackmore, the warship’s Commander Air said: “The deployment covers more than just F-35B flight trials (five weeks); it is also focusing on warm weather characterisation of HMS Queen Elizabeth (hence time off Florida), expanded rotary-wing trials with Merlin aircraft, defence engagement and interoperability with US forces, both ships and aircraft, including further flight trials with US Marine Corps jets.”
In the video below, Gp Capt Jim Beck, Officer Commanding RAF Marham, speaks to Jamie Hunter about the UK Lightning Force's deployment for WESTLANT 19.