An Italian First: The F-35 Crosses the Atlantic


At 1430 on February 5th, the first Italian made F-35A flew into the pattern at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Maryland and touched down. Known to all Naval Aviators as “Pax” this historic flight of an Italian fighter pilot, wearing his cold water survival suit, flew the single seat, single engine F-35A flew in the dead of winter over the North Atlantic.

The Italian AF combat fighter pilot’s call sign was “Ninja” and as a Major he was also a very accomplished test pilot and former Tornado reconnaissance pilot. 

He flew his Lightning II pushing against a 120 knot jet stream essentially hand flying the aircraft the entire way feet wet in a formation with a tanker in the clouds while refueling in the turbulent air of the North Atlantic.

It was remarkable flying that in his debrief Ninja modestly understated with a grin that he was just doing what the mission required.

Pax River is a famous Navy/Marine aviation test center airfield and within the global F-35 community functions in an integrated manner with the world famous USAF aviation test center at Edwards AFB California.

Together these bases are the home of aviators that Tom Wolfe’s famous book describes as having “The Right Stuff.”

And on February 6th “Ninja” was at the top of Wolfe famous aviation pyramid in doing something no other pilot has done while flying the newest F-35 in world. Ninja was very modest but it was a true day for Italian aviation pride and a reason to celebrate.

Historically, allies and partners who operated U.S.-generated fighter aircraft would do so sequentially over time as the type/model/series progressed, with U.S. fighter pilots first flying the newest jets and then allies next as production was generated off of U.S. lines.

For example, the first flight by the U.S. of the F-16 was in 1977, however, it took until 2001 for the first USAF F-16s to be introduced into the Italian AF.   Under the terms of a USAF and Italian AF agreement named the “Peace Caesar” program was a lease of F-16s to make up for shortfalls in Typhoons in the Italian Air Force fleet.

The landing a Pax was the culmination of a very important and visionary effort by Italy.

Four years ago, on an empty field at the Cameri Air Base near Milan Italy, Italian leaders began development of an F-35 final assembly plant. In just four years Cameri became the first F-35 Final Assembly Facility (FACO) outside of the United States. The Japanese are currently assemblying their first F-35 in Japan currently, and came to Cameri as part of their learning process.

At Cameri, Italian industrial defense workers are both building wings for other global partners in the F-35 program, in fact, the first Cameri fabricated “wings” were integrated onto a USAF F-35 recently.

They are building full up and up planes (airframe and systems) for themselves and the Dutch.

The first F-35 came off of the line in early 2015. On Sept. 7, 2015 the first F-35A assembled outside the US, made its very first flight from Cameri airbase.

Later in 2015, the Italian AF took delivery of AL-2, the second F-35 built in Italy.

In stark contrast to the F-16 experience, the first F-35A to cross the Atlantic was flown by Italy not the USAF.

Put in blunt terms, the Italians and the partners are flying the most advanced US combat jet in current production at the same time as the US services, which provides a unique moment in history and a clear opportunity for shaping new global capabilities.

The landing of AF-01, which flew first in Italy in September, was by one of the Italian pilots trained at Luke AFB in the Fall and highlighted the remarkable progress of the program.

The flight from Cameri to Pax River added some miles to the program which is nearly 50,000 miles flown by the fleet to date.

Credit Video: Lockheed Martin, February 5, 2016