Britain’s “formidable fighters”, the F-35 Lightning warplanes, have touched down on UK soil and are set to keep the country safe from the “gravest of dangers”, the Defence Secretary has said.
The multimillion-pound 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, which had been based at US Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, crossed the Atlantic – in a journey more than eight hours long – to become permanently stationed in the UK.
Landing at RAF Marham in Norfolk, the home base of the F-35, the fighter jets touched down two months ahead of schedule at around 8pm, with the officer commanding 617 squadron, Wing Commander John Butcher, doing so first.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “These formidable fighters are a national statement of our intent to protect ourselves and our allies from intensifying threats across the world.
“With a game-changing ability to collect crucial intelligence, fight wars and tackle terrorism, these are the most advanced jets in British history.
“The work that’s gone into their early arrival shows they have the people to match.
“Our defence industry and military have always been at the very forefront of technology, and today’s momentous arrival of these incredible jets shows we are upholding our proud tradition of innovation while keeping Britain safe from the gravest of dangers.”
RAF Air cadets, military personnel, as well as the families of those from 617 squadron and the wider base lined up on the edge of the taxiway to watch the wheels hit the tarmac.
The four pilots, who were supported by an RAF voyager providing air-to-air refuelling across more than 3,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean, were greeted by the Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier and other dignitaries.
ACM Hillier said: “In the RAF’s centenary year, it’s great to see the most advanced and dynamic fighter jet in our history arrive today at RAF Marham – and with the modern Dambusters in the cockpit, this homecoming truly feels like an historic moment in British airpower.
“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-35 Lightning takes the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy to a whole a new level of capability.”
The jets will be jointly operated by the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy and will operate from land and sea, including off the decks of the new £3.1 billion Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers.
Britain currently has 15 F-35Bs – the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the jets – and has pledged to purchase 138 in total from American Aviation giant Lockheed Martin.
First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones said: “Ever since aircraft first operated to and from ships, the Royal Navy has been at the forefront of maritime aviation and the arrival of our first F35Bs in the UK today, flown by both RAF and Fleet Air Arm pilots, is another important milestone on the way to restoring our place as leaders in the field of aircraft carrier operations.
“Once combined with our new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales, these extraordinary jets will sit at the heart of our country’s globally deployable expeditionary forces and provide the potent conventional deterrent we need to ensure our national security.”
Later this year F-35 flight trials will take place off the behemoth aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, seeing British pilots fly jointly owned test jets that are currently based at Patuxent River, Maryland, off the deck.