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!

 

 

 

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 (https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/fCrZc/1/)

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.

Airframes

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. (https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/sPw9j/1/)

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. (https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/JT4m0/1/)

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.

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A fleet of 24 historic aircraft; officially better value for money than Robert Downey Jr. (https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/GhtqD/1/)

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.