Pilot tells of ‘hugely prideful moment’ as new F-35 jets touch down on UK soil
Four of the jets crossed the Atlantic on Wednesday to become permanently stationed in the UK.
Britain’s multimillion pound F-35 stealth fighter jets have touched down on UK soil, with one pilot describing the moment as the biggest in his career.
The 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 on Wednesday 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.
“What a day, what an opportunity for us to show the F-35 off.
“It was a good flight across from the United States, the weather was in our favour and it felt absolutely brilliant bringing the jets back here today,” he told the Press Association.
Describing how there were intense periods and moments where the pilots could relax during the sortie, which lasted more than eight-and-a-half hours, he said the jets coped well with the trip, that they carried out nine refuelling serials, and how were no issues with any of them during the crossing.
This is the jets refuelling off the coast of Canada this afternoon. pic.twitter.com/DGwhI7B8l2— Royal Air Force (@RoyalAirForce) June 6, 2018
Asked how important arriving in Marham is in terms of his wider career, Wg Cdr Butcher said: “This is probably the biggest moment in my RAF career to date.
“It is a hugely prideful moment to see 617 squadron at RAF Marham.”
The UK’s £9.1 billion programme to buy 48 of the F-35s, the world’s most advanced fighter jet, over the next decade has come under fire over capability and expense.
Reports have suggested that the effective cost of each plane is as much as £150 million when logistics and support are taken into account.
Quizzed on what he would say to the critics who may question the cost of the jets, Wg Cdr Butcher said: “The combat capability that the F-35 brings is absolutely exceptional.
“My comment would really be, when you are looking to have the fighting edge you need F-35 and certainly F-35B – working Royal Air Force and Royal Navy side by side – gives us that combat air advantage and we can do it from the land and sea.
“That is really what makes it different.”
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.
And as the jets pulled up in a line and turned their engines off following the landing on to the runway, those watching could be heard clapping the new arrivals.
Ahead of @thef35's first touch down at it's new home at @RAFMarhamMedia this evening, find out more about the Lightning and the role it will play for both the @RoyalAirForce and the @RoyalNavy #F35UK pic.twitter.com/K7Cwjy9cbK— Defence Equipment & Support (@DefenceES) June 6, 2018
Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, told the Press Association: “This was an historic day, this is the UK’s fifth generation capability arriving here at RAF Marham.
“This is the future of our air power for decades to come, so this is a tremendously important day.”
Asked what he said to the pilots who had made the journey, greeting them as they climbed out of the cockpits, ACM Hillier said: “It was ‘well done’. Eight-and-a-half hours in a single seater aircraft is quite fatiguing.
“Nine tanker brackets, 4,000 miles across the Atlantic – what that demonstrates is the skill and professionalism of our pilots and our engineers.
“What it also demonstrates is our ability to reach across the globe, deploy our military capability wherever it needs to be and do that very quickly.”
The jets will be jointly flown 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.
617 squadron will now spend the next six months working towards declaring initial operating capability from land by the end of December.
Five more UK F-35 are also expected to arrive from the US at RAF Marham by the end of July or beginning of August.
"A transition from current to next generation combat air power." Group Captain Cab Townsend is looking forward to welcoming the new F-35B Lightnings to @RAFMarhamMedia. #F35UK pic.twitter.com/j41XIpLEAc— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) June 6, 2018
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.
Minister of defence procurement Guto Bebb said the jets arriving in Britain “challenges all the perceptions that have been out there in terms of the negativity”.
Quizzed on whether there may be a change in the overall number of, or a shift in the types of variants ordered, he said: “There are 138 we are committed to buying, but in terms of the initial orders, it is 48 of the type B.
“The Modernising Defence Programme (due to report back this summer) is looking at what we need in terms of capabilities moving forward,” he said.
Britain's most advanced jets touch down on home soil. Four F-35B Lightnings arrived into @RAFMarhamMedia, their new home in Norfolk after a trans-Atlantic flight from the United States.— Royal Air Force (@RoyalAirForce) June 6, 2018
Read more: https://t.co/c8i7kARKSN pic.twitter.com/eOY8Nk9iTj
“But I think it is very clear that the full 48 initial B variants – fully funded, the work being done here to make sure they are well housed, maintained and so on – all of that is fully funded.
“Of course there will be decisions taken in terms of the Modernising Defence Programme. But the commitment at this time is still to retain the initial order of 138 platforms.”
Pressed on whether there may be a change in the variants ordered, he said that the issue is something which can be looked at within the review.
Appearing not to rule out a shift to the A variants which solely fly from land, he said: “The whole point of that review is to ensure we have the right capability for the challenges we are facing.”