First UK Operational Flight of F-35


09/08/2013: The first solo flight of the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) by a UK operational pilot has taken place in the United States.

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Credit Photos: 33rd Fighter Wing

On 19 March at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, Squadron Leader Frankie Buchler piloted the fifth-generation multi-role stealth aircraft for the first time. The RAF pilot has been stationed at the Florida base since November last year undergoing intensive training on the JSF which will equip both RAF and Royal Navy squadrons in the future.

Having previously undertaken a number of training sorties in a simulator, Sqn Ldr Buchler’s first solo concentrated on the subtle differences between the two and flying the aircraft in the airfield circuit.

Speaking after his flight Sqn Ldr Buchler said: “It flies very smoothly. Nothing unexpected, it went pretty well.”

The RAF pilot, who has previously flown Jaguar and Typhoon, will now undertake a further five training sorties before receiving his initial qualifications which will in turn enable him to begin an instructor upgrade course.

Commenting on the flight, Group Captain Harv Smyth the JSF UK National Deputy said: “Whilst this marks a landmark event in the flying career of Sqn Ldr Buchler, it also represents the culmination of a magnificent team effort on both sides of the Atlantic.

“This last year has witnessed many “firsts” for the UK Lightning programme, not least the acceptance of our first aircraft: this sortie, the first to be flown by an operational pilot, represents the start of the UK’s path towards declaration of an Initial Operating Capability in 2018 with our very own stealthy, fifth generation air system.”

He added: “I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those involved with the Programme, either directly or indirectly, as their tenacious efforts have proven vital to getting our first operational pilot airborne. This is been the epitome of a whole team effort.”

The first two UK F-35 Lightning II aircraft are based at Eglin and operate with the US Marine Corps who are also purchasing the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) version of the aircraft.

The F-35 features both advanced stealth technology and the speed and agility of a fighter. Combined with the aircraft’s technologically advanced sensors and its ability to operate from land or the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, F-35 will keep UK Defence at the cutting edge of military aviation.

The aircraft has a number of features designed to minimise its radar signature, including identical sweep angles on the leading and trailing edges of wings and tails, saw toothed seams on both canopy and weapon-bay doors, and the ability to carry a range of weapons internally.

The impressive strike power of Lightning is however only part of its capability. The electronic systems aboard also make the aircraft a tactical Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) asset providing unheralded situational awareness to pilots and commanders.