USAF’s first Europe-based F-35A unit activated at Lakenheath

During a ceremony at RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk, on October 1, the US Air Force (USAF) re-activated the first US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighter squadron as part of the resident 48th Fighter Wing (FW).

The 495th Fighter Squadron (FS) ‘Valkyries’ was formally activated at the symbolically specific time of exactly 0849hrs and 50 seconds on Friday morning, 30 years to the day since its original designation as a fighter squadron. Some members of the original 495th FS attended the activation ceremony, including retired USAF Col James ‘Rusty’ Russell, the former commander of the 495th FS, who previously deactivated the squadron at the end of its last incarnation on December 13, 1991.

The first F-35A for the Valkyries is due to arrive at Lakenheath later this year. The UK base was selected to host the first US F-35A squadrons in Europe based on very close ties with the Royal Air Force (RAF), existing infrastructure and combined training opportunities. Additionally, the UK is a critical component in training and combat readiness for USAFE due to its excellent airspace and F-35 programme partnership.

495th FS reactivation
With ground instructional F-15B Eagle 76-0124 acting as a backdrop, US Air Force Lt Col Ian McLaughlin, 495th Fighter Squadron commander, speaks of his goals for the unit at RAF Lakenheath on October 1 during the reactivation ceremony. USAF/Airman 1st Class Cedrique Oldaker

Lt Col Ian D McLaughlin has assumed the post of the first commander since the squadron’s inactivation in 1991. During the ceremony, he said: “Today is an exciting day. There has been a great deal of work done to get us this far, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done prior to getting jets this winter. The 495th has a proud history and we’re excited to take the guidon forward to start building the foundation for first USAF F-35As stationed in Europe.”

Gen Jeff Harrigian, US Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa (USAFE-AFAFRICA) commander, said: “The 495th Fighter Squadron represents a huge step in refining interoperability. We’ve already started exercising these capabilities with our partners who have F-35s in theatre, so we’ll be ready to get after it when the new aircraft arrive in December.”

The 495th FS is scheduled to be fully mission capable in 2022 with a total of 27 aircraft and 60 personnel. With the introduction of the F-35A, the 'Valkyries' will step the 48th FW and USAFE into the fifth-generation of airpower, advancing multi-domain capabilities and air superiority. The squadron had latterly operated the F-111F ‘Aardvark’ from 1977 until its deactivation in 1991, during which time it was also based at Lakenheath.

It had been announced on September 15, 2020, that the 495th FS had been selected as the unit to be reactivated as the first of two squadrons to operate the F-35A at Lakenheath. As its previous nickname of ‘Thundervarks’ referred specifically to the F-111, it was decided to rename the unit. After an invitation for suggestions from the public in autumn 2020, it was announced on February 16, 2021, that the name ‘Valkyries’ had been selected out of 700 possible suggestions. It beat four other shortlisted names: 'Archangels', 'Sabres', 'Sentinels' and 'Swordsmen'.

The 495th FS joins three other units within the 48th FW – the 492nd FS ‘Madhatters’ and 494th FS ‘Panthers’ both with F-15E Strike Eagles and the 493rd FS ‘Grim Reapers’ with F-15C/D Eagles. Although yet to be officially confirmed, it is believed that the 493rd FS will eventually be divested of its F-15C/Ds to become the second 48th FW F-35A unit, giving Lakenheath two F-15E and two F-35A squadrons.