Britain’s cutting-edge F-35 Lightning stealth fighter jets are expected to touch down on UK soil from as early as next week, it can be revealed.
The UK’s supersonic aircraft have been stationed in America since their manufacture, being tested and used for training by Royal Air Force and Royal Navy pilots.
Four of the jets, based at US Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, are due to cross the Atlantic in the first trip, with five following by the beginning of August.
Since their UK arrival was announced by Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson earlier this month, the jets are being prepared for the trip – which could happen any time from June 5, it is understood.
Wing Commander Scott Williams, the UK’s senior representative in Beaufort, said the exact date of the move is yet to be confirmed and will depend on a number of factors including the weather.
Ahead of their imminent landing at RAF Marham, Norfolk, he said: “There is definitely a feeling that we have arrived very quickly to a point where we are comfortable to take some of our aeroplanes and send them back to the UK so that 617 squadron can declare initial operating capability at the end of the year.
“For us, there is definitely a sense that the time is now right, we are ready.
“For those that will remain behind, obviously we are going to be sad to see our colleagues leave, but we know that a year from now everyone is going to be back together at RAF Marham and building the UK Lightning Force.”
Wg Cdr Williams is also the officer commanding 207 squadron which will become the UK’s F-35 training unit from July 2019.
Britain currently has 15 F-35Bs – the short take off and vertical landing variant of the jets – based in the US, and has pledged to purchase 138 in total.
In Beaufort there are currently 120 UK personnel and 11 British jets which are used and flown in conjunction with the 19 stationed there and owned by the US Marines.
The jets from both countries sit in a mixed line under sun shades in the blazing South Carolina heat – operated by both the US and UK as one training unit, VMFAT-501 the Warlords.
Inside the main hangar, the warplanes are also jointly maintained, with Wg Cdr Williams adding: “We fly each other’s aeroplanes, we engineer each others aeroplanes on a daily basis.”
Asked whether the nine UK jets that are due to leave will affect the programme at Beaufort, he said he does not think it will because the personnel are set to head back to Britain too.
He added: “We are comfortable both on the Marine and the UK side that taking the aircraft away is not going to adversely affect the ability for VMFAT-501 to output Lightning pilots.”
Praising the set-up in which both countries work alongside each other, Wg Cdr Williams said: “It is really good, we have observed and been a part of the daily issues here to know how we can firefight those when we go home.
“We will be indebted to the United States Marine Corps for getting us as a UK Lightning Force on our feet, forever.”
This is a sentiment mirrored by Royal Navy pilot Lieutenant “Hux”, who can only be identified by his nickname, and said the collaboration in Beaufort will be “critical” in future, and highlighted how both the UK and US are “integrated seamlessly”.
The 26-year-old ab initio pilot, another word for trainee, is learning to fly the F-35B and is due to head back to RAF Marham in July to join 617 squadron.
Asked whether he is hoping to take the technology of the jet and make it his own, he said: “I think there is a huge expectation that we are going to have to do that when we come back to the UK because this is the first time the UK has operated something like this.
“There is so much to explore and unlock, and we are constantly looking forward to new revisions of the software that are going to enable us to do more and more with sensors.
“There is a huge amount of untapped potential in this aeroplane.”
Describing how there is “incredible excitement” ahead of the big move back to the UK, Lt Hux said having the jet in Britain is “going to be really cool”.
“It isn’t just another iteration of the previous aeroplane, it is totally new from the ground up, which is why it has taken so long to develop,” he said.
“And it is going to be a game-changing capability I think when it gets back to the UK.”