Britain’s first four F-35B Lightning aircraft, the country’s next-generation fighter jets, landed there Wednesday — two months ahead of schedule.
It’s a major milestone for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, officials said as the cutting edge aircraft arrived at RAF Marham in Norfolk from the United States, where Britain has more of the jets and 150 personnel in training.
The ahead-of-schedule arrival will provide an opportunity for support staff to get a head start preparing the aircraft for operational service at the end of the year. About $739 million has been invested in RAF Marham to get the base ready to house the new jets, including a facilities upgrade, resurfaced runways and new landing pads to accommodate the jet’s ability to land vertically.
The F-35B is the version developed for the U.S. Marine Corps that has vertical landing and takeoff capabilities. It was built by Lockheed Martin, with BAE Systems contributing to the program.
Known in the United Kingdom as the Lightning, the aircraft is the first to combine radar-evading stealth technology with supersonic speeds, as well as the ability to perform the short take-offs and vertical landings. It’s the most lethal, survivable fighter jet ever built.
“If you can’t see us coming, you won’t be able to stop us, so with its stealth and other world-beating technologies, the F-35B Lightning takes the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy to a whole new level of capability,” Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier said in a statement.
It was also a milestone for the companies that helped produce the aircraft.
“This aircraft will truly transform how the UK conducts its defense operations,” said Peter Ruddock, chief executive of Lockheed Martin UK. “As a key partner in the F-35 program from its early stages, the UK has been instrumental in shaping the design and development of the aircraft, particularly in relation to the short take-off and vertical landing capabilities.”
Chris Boardman, managing director of BAE Systems Air, was at RAF Marham to welcome the jets to their new home.
“From development to production and through to its entry into service as part of a worldwide fleet, our global F-35 team has made its mark right across the program” Boardman said. “Together with our industry partners, we are very proud to be a part of this momentous day for the UK.”
Both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy can operate the jet from land and sea, forming a vital part of “carrier strike,” the use of aircraft from Britain’s new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers. The first F-35 landing will take place this autumn on HMS Queen Elizabeth in its next phase of trials.
Having both ship and aircraft operating together for the first time will be another significant moment for the Armed Forces, the officials said.
RAF Voyager aircraft provided air-to-air refuels on the Lightnings’ trans-Atlantic journey, the first fleet of the aircraft to touch down. More jets are due in Britain later this year, with an ultimate plan for 138 to be delivered to the UK.
The F-35 is the world’s largest defense program at over $1.3 trillion, with the UK providing 15 percent of every one of over 3,000 jets set for the global order book. It has generated $12.9 billion worth of orders and will support thousands of British manufacturing and engineering jobs, RAF officials said.
By Brooke Baitinger