Lightning strikes: Britain's first F-35B supersonic fighter lands

Nice jet, just don't look too closely at the software snafus

The first RAF F-35B Lightning II to land in the UK. Crown copyright
The first RAF F-35B to land in Britain, piloted by Sqn Ldr Hugh Nicols (L), shaking hands with Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford, Chief of the Air Staff. Crown copyright

The first of the Royal Air Force's new F-35B Joint Strike Fighter jets landed on British soil last night, heralding a new era for the Royal Air Force.

The supersonic Lightning II, as it will be known in RAF service, was flown across the Atlantic by RAF Squadron Leader Hugh Nicols, in the company of two US Marine Corps F-35Bs.

The transatlantic flight set off from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina, landing at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire just before 8pm last night.

The BBC reports that the three fighters were supported by air-to-air tankers for the transatlantic phase. Various bloggers claimed these were USAF KC-10s on the west of the Atlantic and a KC-130J over Ireland.

While aviation geeks are very excited about the arrival of the first British F-35 in the UK, the aircraft's history to date has been chequered. In March it was revealed that the fighter's radar software had a bug that caused it to fail in mid-air, while just weeks ago the US Senate heard that other software bugs in USAF F-35As forced ground engineers, during a scramble exercise, to reboot the aircraft just to get them started up.

The Lightnings will form the core of Britain's carrier-borne strike aviation, being based in wings of 12 aboard HM Ships Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, the two 70,000-ton aircraft carriers under construction at Babcock International's Rosyth dockyard. Queen Elizabeth is substantially complete and her sea trials are scheduled to begin in August this year, her crew having moved aboard the new warship in May. The two carriers can each carry up to 36 F-35Bs if required.

Controversy arose earlier in the carrier procurement programme over the decision not to equip the ships with conventional cat-and-trap aircraft launch and recovery systems. Instead, the Queen Elizabeth class are fitted with ski jumps in order to launch their F-35Bs as Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft, similar to the faithful old Harrier jump-jets which went out of Fleet Air Arm service in 2006. The RAF's Harriers were withdrawn in 2010, with the remains of both aircraft fleets eventually being sold to America for spares. The US Marine Corps still operates Harriers to this day.

The RAF will reactivate its famous 617 Squadron to operate the F-35 and the unit will be based at RAF Marham, with the Air Force hoping the unit will achieve full operational status by 2019. Alongside 617 Sqn will be 809 Naval Air Squadron, providing the Fleet Air Arm's contribution to the F-35 fleet. Deck landing trials of the UK's F-35s are reportedly scheduled for autumn 2018. ®




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