An RAF F35 Lightning II in the UK in 2016.
Photo by Matthew Hmoud

Four British F35 Lightning IIs are on the tarmac at RAF Marham, Norfolk, this evening.

It’s safe to say this is a pretty big deal.

The aircraft first visited the UK for the 2016 airshow season, the clear main attraction at the Farnborough International Airshow and at the Royal International Air Tattoo.

And despite a small hiccup that postponed their planned flight yesterday (even a 5th generation aircraft can’t control the Atlantic weather) they arrived in the UK just after 2000hrs local time.

Commonly known as the most expensive defence project in history, it has taken hundreds of billions of dollars and numerous teething problems to get this far.

The F35 project has been a long hard slog for Lockheed Martin, BAe Systems and the various different partner companies.

Don’t forget, the F35 first flew in 2006, whilst the first production model took to the air in 2011.

It’s faced criticism for its cost, delays to the project and changing political appetites.

And the troubles aren’t over; as recently as April 2018, the US Department of Defence halted deliveries of the 5th generation jet, apparently due to a contracting dispute with Lockheed.

But despite uncertainty about defence budgets in the UK, and how many airframes the UK government will eventually purchase, things are starting to fall into place for the Lightning force.

HMS Queen Elizabeth is rapidly progressing through sea trials, with the ship set to leave Portsmouth any day now before heading to America.

The next stage in the supercarrier project will be fixed wing flight trials, due to happen sometime this year.

And the first unit to take up residency on the ship will be 617 Squadron, stood up in April as the UK’s first frontline F35 unit.

The Operational Conversion Unit is due to stand up within 12 months, with 809 Naval Air Squadron expected to follow in a few years time.

The Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, called the arrival of the jets a “national statement of…intent”.

It’s certainly a momentous occasion for the aircrews, the engineers and the all those who’ve worked to bring the F35 into UK service.

But this is only the start of a long (and hopefully illustrious) career for the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft.

It might be too early to say whether the F35 project has been a success.

But the one thing we can all agree on:

For us #avgeeks, this is very, very cool!

 

 

 

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