Lightning IIs strike twice (and twice again): F35s arrive in the UK

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!




South Western Railway worst for complaint handling nationally

Surrey’s biggest train operator is the worst performer nationally when it comes to handling customer complaints.

South Western Railway dealt with 80 per cent of their customer complaints within 20 days during the last three months of 2017.

Rail operators are set a target of handling 95 per cent of customer complaints within that time frame.

Govia Thameslink, operator of Southern Trains, and Great Western Railway both hit the target.

Six train operators, including Cross Country, managed to handle 100 per cent of their customer complaints within the 20 day time frame.

Complaint Handling

But both South Western Railways and Great Western Railway, who operate the vast majority of trains running in Surrey, have struggled to meet the 95 per cent target.

A South Western Railway spokesperson said: “The report reflects the position at the end of last year.

“Our response rate is currently running at over 97% and we are working hard to improve this even further.”

The number of complaints made against SWR per 100,000 passengers, has risen slightly in the last quarter, but remains comparatively low.

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But this will still make for disappointing reading for South Western bosses, given that TOCs which much higher complaint rates are performing much better when it comes to dealing with complaints in the 20 day time frame.

CrossCountry’s complaints rate has increased sharply over the 2017-18 year so far, but their complaint handling rate remains steady.

The statistics, released by the Office for Road and Rail, follow a challenging six months for South Western Railway.

The company took over the franchise in August 2017, during the middle of major engineering works at London’s busiest terminal, London Waterloo.

The works caused massive disruption for summer passengers, and a number of incidents since then have compounded SWR’s problems.

Passenger numbers in the last quarter of 2017-18 have dropped by more than 7% compared to the same period in the previous financial year.

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Transport Secretary Chris Grayling announced last week that the Virgin East Coast franchise was to be renationalised under the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) brand.

South Western Railway is one of a number of poorly performing TOCs that some believe could be taken back into public ownership in a similar way.

But speaking in the House of Commons last week, the Transport Secretary said that no other franchises are in “the same position” as Virgin East Coast.

He said that “we are seeing changed patterns of ridership” on the UK rail network but that TOCs are delivering a “higher level of customer satisfaction than…prior to 2014”.

Based on article I originally wrote for Eagle Radio.

UK Overseas Territories can’t be ‘forgotten’ during Brexit

How many things can you name that have been mentioned in the Brexit negotiations?

You might respond with the Irish Border, or the European Courts of Justice, or the ‘new customs partnership’.

But you probably won’t mention the UK’s 14 Overseas Territories.

From Anguilla in the tropical Caribbean, to tiny Pitcairn in the Indian Ocean; they all rely on the EU in some unique way.

This link comes from the UK’s membership of the EU, and a document called the ‘Overseas Association Decision’, signed in 2013.

“It deals with a number of things,” explained Dr Peter Clegg. He is a Professor of Politics at the University of the West of England.

“It focuses on economic co-operation, on trade, on aid policy, on environmental co-operation, on small and medium size enterprise development.

“It’s a document that basically defines the overall nature of the relationship that the Overseas Territories have with the EU.”

In other words, the OTs all have access to the Single Market, have freedom of movement for their citizens and get access to the European Development Fund.

And as the Brexit date approaches and the UK prepares to leave, the future for the territories remains uncertain.

Trade is the top concern for the Falkland Islands, with around 80% of their total trade going to the EU.

Their fishing industry makes up 50% of the Island’s GDP – which is in the region of around £120 million, according to the Falkland Islands government.

Teslyn Barkman is the member of the Falkland Islands’ Assembly with responsibility for the economy and fisheries.

“We provide about 19% of [The EU’s] total demand,” she explained, talking about squid caught by Falkland Islands fisheries.

Their product is in particularly high demand in Spain and Italy.

But an end to free trade and the possibility of tariffs or quotas is now a day to day worry.

Ms Barkman said: “People who rely on the fishing industry, or have fishing companies, for example, are day to day very concerned.

“Agriculture is our second largest employer…having that diversification option there is so important.

“That’s not something that people would like to lose out on.”

Concerns go further than trade

In September 2017, the Caribbean was devastated by Hurricane Irma.

UK Overseas Territories like the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla were badly damaged, and required millions of pounds worth of support from the UK Government in the immediate aftermath.

But more long term funding came from the European Union.

As recently as February, Anguilla received €2.8 million to rebuild schools on the island.

Other Overseas Territories have also benefited.

The Pitcairn Island’s received €2.4 million from the EU in the most recent round of funding.

Ascension Islands, Tristan da Cunha and St Helena received more than €20 million.

The UK Government have said that they’ll match any funding lost before the end of the most recent EU Development Fund round, which ends in 2020.

But there’s no guarantee of any funding beyond this point.

Dr Peter Clegg believes that this is a “real concern” for the Overseas Territories.

“With likely a significant economic impact on the UK as a consequence of Brexit,” he says there’ll be a “tightening of government spending across the board.”

Dr Clegg thinks that this will be means that funding for the UK Overseas Territories might “not be a particular priority” for the government.

The political process

The UK Overseas Territories meet on a semi regular basis with the UK Government through a body called the Joint Ministerial Council.

But some in Westminster believe that the Overseas Territories are already bottom of the agenda.

Admiral Lord West, a veteran of the Falklands War and a Labour politician, believes it’s vital that the UK remembers the OTs during the negotiations.

He said: “We’ve got to remember we’re not just doing a trade deal for [the] UK, we’re doing a trade deal for our overseas territories as well.

“We can’t just forget them.

“They’ve got to be absolutely a part of that deal and I’m not quite sure how much of that involvement there has been at the moment.”

The Foreign Office and the Department for Exiting the EU insist that the overseas territories are a major part of the Brexit negotiations.

Overseas Territories are next set to meet the Joint Ministerial Council in June.

Until then, representatives like Teslyn Barkman will continue to make their case with the UK Government and the EU.

She said: “I’d like to think that very reasonable people will sit around the table and come up with a reasonable option.

“I put a lot of faith in that because I think that is the sensible thing to have happen.”


You can listen to my documentary on Brexit and the UK Overseas Territories here:

Dunkirk: The return of the flying film

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was an Amazon bestseller this Christmas.

The film has been praised for its aerial sequences, using real aircraft on a scale that hasn’t been seen in many years. The Battle of Britain historian James Holland said “the flying sequences were absolutely fantastic”.

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Google Searches for Dunkirk on DVD spiked over the Christmas period (

With directors like Christopher Nolan committing to avoiding computer generated imagery (CGI) as much as possible, Dunkirk demonstrates that Hollywood has the skills and the resources to film high quality air battle footage. Could the experience of Dunkirk be used to usher in an aerial filming renaissance?

The Benchmark

The benchmark for air battles on film is the 1969 Battle of Britain (directed by legendary Bond director, Guy Hamilton).  The film, shot using a fleet of 100 aircraft, featured some of the most ambitious aerial sequences ever recorded.

Few films since then have met the standard set by Battle of Britain. Dunkirk’s approach has bucked a trend towards the use of CGI to save money and ease in the production. Modern attempts at aviation war films like George Lucas’ Red Tails have been heavily criticised for this approach.

By analysing the filming process of Dunkirk, and the footage used in Battle of Britain, the possible cost of a modern attempt at Guy Hamilton’s classic is revealed.


The first challenge for a modern filmmaker in making a modern Battle of Britain would be finding suitable aircraft for the challenge.

In filming Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan made use of three Supermarine Spitfires, alongside a twin seat Yakolev Yak52 to film the cockpit sequences. The production also used a single Hispano Aviacion Buchon, a Spanish made copy of a Messerschmitt Bf109.

All of the German aircraft used in the original Battle of Britain were Spanish reproductions. A large number of these aircraft were still in use by the Spanish Air Force at the time of the original production, so Hamilton’s team were able to amass a fleet of nearly 50 flying German aircraft.

There are two major differences between the aircraft on offer to filmmakers today, compared with Hamilton in the 60s. Thanks to the work of a number of conservators, there are at least 34 airworthy single seat Spitfires in the UK today, compared with only 12 available to the Battle of Britain film crew. There has also been an increase in the number of airworthy Hurricanes in the UK, from three in the 60s to seven today.

The other difference is the lack of airworthy German aircraft. For the Battle of Britain film, 32 Heinkel He111 bombers were available, alongside 17 Messerschmitt Bf109 fighters.

Today, there are no He111s flying in the world, whilst there are only eight airworthy Bf109s in Europe, and none in the UK. Christopher Nolan’s team overcame this using radio controlled models of the large bombers for sequences in Dunkirk.

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Conservation efforts have saved a large number of Spitfires in the air, but the lack of German aircraft would be a major challenge to filmmakers. (

With the period aircraft available, a modern air battle film could make use of a large fleet of 24 aircraft, providing plenty of airframes for complex and exciting aerial sequences.

Flying Time and Footage

Considering that Battle of Britain has a run time of 126 minutes, a surprisingly small amount of that is airborne footage. Only 38 minutes of aerial sequences are found in the film, which works out as 30.2% of the film’s total run time.

This is a bigger fraction of the film than Dunkirk, which only used 21 minutes of aerial footage. Comparing this to the 106 minute run time of the film, this makes 19.8% of the film.

Despite the different focuses of the two films, Dunkirk and Battle of Britain devote similar fractions of their run times to aerial footage. (

According to an eyewitness, the Dunkirk film crew flew 12 sorties a day for two weeks straight from Lee-on-Solent airfield to film the airborne sequences. Another report suggested each sortie lasted around 30 minutes, which provides an estimate of 84 hours of filming taking place over that period.

Dunkirk’s ratio of film time (84 hours) to footage in the finished movie (21 minutes) suggests that in a shot for shot remake of Battle of Britain, the 38 minutes worth of aerial footage would require 152 hours of filming.

The Cost

Cost would be the biggest barrier to be overcome for a future air battle production. Whilst it’s difficult to account for the cost of film crews and camera aircraft, it’s relatively easy to work out how much it would cost to loan historic aircraft for the filming period.

The Boultbee Flight Academy is a company that offers pleasure flights in a pair of two seat Spitfires. Based on their price list, the (estimated) cost per flying hour of a ‘warbird’ type aircraft is around $7300.

A future Battle of Britain film, would need the fleet of 24 aircraft flying for 152 filming hours, total ling 3648 flying hours. That would cost around $26.6 Million.

Although such a price tag for 38 minutes of aerial footage might seem expensive, it pales in comparison to wage packets in modern Hollywood. Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr. was paid $15 Million for his appearance in Spiderman: Homecoming, according to industry magazine the Hollywood Reporter. This is despite the actor appeared for only 8 minutes on screen, 6% of the films 133 minute run time.

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 20.50.44

A fleet of 24 historic aircraft; officially better value for money than Robert Downey Jr. (

Could it be done?

Such a film could be closer than it appears. As far back as 2006, acclaimed director Sir Peter Jackson declared that he was to remake the iconic 50s war film, the Dam Busters.

The story of Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bomb and 617 Squadron would be a far more challenging task to try and remake, given that there are only two airworthy Lancasters worldwide.

More than 10 years on, his efforts have so far proved fruitless, as the New Zealander has turned his attention to direct films such as the Hobbit trilogy.

Despite the failure of the Dam Busters project to get off the ground, modern works like Dunkirk prove that there is an appetite for modern retelling of history’s greatest air battles. Despite the technical challenges, and the financial resource required, aerial film making on this scale can be done.