Royal Navy pilots flying UK F-35B jets in Cyprus will mark the first time in over a decade UK naval aviators are operating overseas.
Two months of training in the eastern Mediterranean is lined up for the men and women of the Lightning Force in preparation for their first spell of training aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth this autumn.
Not since September 2010 and the final weeks of the Harrier’s service have naval aviators taken a front-line fast jet overseas – also to the RAF’s air base at Akrotiri in southern Cyprus.
The Lightnings arrived in the UK last year, flying across the Atlantic to their new permanent home at RAF Marham.
Since then, they’ve been gradually developing the individual and collective tactics which will allow the fifth-generation fighter to deploy around the world on combat operations either from the decks of HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales (from 2021), or from allied air bases such as Akrotiri.
“I’m extremely proud to see the squadron ready to deploy for the first time, particularly given the efforts that led to declaring initial operating capability earlier this year,” said Lieutenant Commander Adam Hogg, 617 Squadron’s Executive Officer.
The deployment will also train and test all aspects of moving the F-35 aircraft to a new location – including all the logistic support, maintenance, and personnel required to get the Lightning off the ground.
Once the Mediterranean deployment is complete the Lightnings will return to Norfolk to gear up to sail with HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Eastern Seaboard of the USA in the late summer/early autumn.
So far all the F-35s operating from Marham serve with the RAF’s legendary 617 Squadron – the Dambusters – although two in every five personnel on the squadron are Royal Navy.
As part of the UK’s intention to buy more than 130 Lightnings, a second F-35 squadron will form next decade under Fleet Air Arm tutelage, 809 NAS.