NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, Md. – An Italian Air Force F-35 completed the fighter jet’s first transatlantic crossing Friday, a historic event that kicks off a landmark year for the international program.
The aircraft, an Italian Air Force F-35A dubbed AL-1, touched down here Feb. 5 after a seven-hour flight from Lajes Air Base, Portugal. The plane, which began its journey from Cameri Air Base in Italy, on Tuesday, was scheduled to arrive here on Wednesday, but was delayed due to weather and maintenance issues.
Despite a turbulent flight with headwinds of 120 knots, the plane performed well during both legs of the journey, Major Gianmarco, whose call sign is “Ninja,” the first Italian Air Force F-35 pilot, told reporters. The F-35, which flew with two C-130s, a Eurofighter Typhoon and two Italian tankers, required three aerial refuelings on the trip from Cameri to Lajes, and another four on the final leg, he said.
The event marks two firsts for the program – AL-1 is not only the first F-35 ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean, but it is also the first F-35 built overseas, at the Cameri Final Assembly and Check-Out facility. Gianmarco expressed pride that the first-ever F-35 to cross the pond is an Italian aircraft, flown by an Italian pilot.
“I’m really proud of it because we are not following somebody doing this – we are on the very front line,” said Gianmarco, who finished training at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., in November. “We are making history here, and we’re making history for many different reasons: because we built it, because we are flying it, we are supporting it, because we are here at the very same level with you guys.”
The Lockheed Martin-built aircraft’s fusion cockpit is a game-changer, Gianmarco stressed. The advanced technology automatically manages the aircraft’s sensors and transmits information to the pilot, allowing him to focus on the mission objective.
The F-35 was supposed to cross the Atlantic for the first time in summer 2014, before the jet’s planned international debut at the Royal International Air Tattoo and the Farnborough Air Show outside London. But the planes – US Marine Corps F-35B variants – were forced to skip both events due to an engine fire and subsequent fleet-wide grounding.
The US Air Force now plans to send a pair of F-35As to RIAT and Farnborough this summer, joining two F-35Bs that are also scheduled to make appearances at the shows.
As for the Italian jets, the plane that crossed the ocean Friday will now spend three months here undergoing what is called “electromagnetic environmental effects” (E3) testing, which evaluates the effects electrostatic events such as high-powered radars, communications systems, and lightning have on the aircraft. The goal is to enable the jet to survive the range of electromagnetic threats, from radio interference to weather.
After finishing E3 evaluation and certification, AL-1 will join the F-35 international pilot training center at Luke, according to William Couch, spokesman for Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division.
The team here at Patuxent River has already completed E3 testing on the US F-35B and US F-35A variants, and is finishing up work on the US Navy F-35C model.
AL-1 is first of five airplanes that Italy has committed to the international pilot training fleet at Luke, according to Couch. The Italian Air Force will procure a total of 90 F-35s – both F-35As and F-35Bs.