Editor's Note: This article was corrected to clarify the process of customer F-35 acceptance flights and pilot training.
ROME — The first F-35 flight outside the US will take place in October when Italy's first F-35 begins test flights after rolling off the country's final assembly line, a Lockheed Martin official said.
After entering service with the Italian Air Force, the aircraft, AL-1, will then fly across the Atlantic in the first quarter of 2016, probably via the UK and Iceland, to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where Italian pilots will train, said Debra Palmer, the Lockheed executive leading F-35 work in Italy.
That is the same route that joint strike fighters were due to take to reach the UK from the US last summer to appear at the Farnborough International Air Show. The appearance was canceled when the JSF fleet was grounded due to a fire in the engine of one aircraft.
Details of the pending flights emerged as activity ramped up this month at Italy's final assembly line at Cameri Air Base in northern Italy, which is owned by the Italian Defense Ministry and operated by Finmeccanica unit Alenia Aermacchi and Lockheed Martin.
The facility, which is currently the only one of its kind outside the US, was designated by the JSF Program last year to also serve as the MRO&U (maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade hub for European- and Mediterranean-based JSFs.
In March, the first of Italy's planned 90 JSFs rolled off the line, and this month its engines were turned on for the first time.
"A full engine run can take two to three2-3 days but this took one day," said Ms. Palmer said. "Technicians on site from Pratt and Whitney said this was the cleanest run they had personally seen on an engine."
AL-1 is now undergoing minor planned modifications before it will receive final coatings beginning the week of June 23 in the aircraft final finishes (AFF) building, a process that will take about six weeks. The work will be undertaken by Alenia Aermacchi with technology transfer oversight provided by Lockheed Martin experts for the initial planes, Palmer said.
"It is important to assure this complex technology is done flawlessly. The Italian MoD has paid for us to oversee the work to this purpose," she said.
Around Aug. 20, the aircraft will move for about two weeks to the acceptance test facility, where US officials will test the coatings using radar to see if they produce the stealth effect required. The building will remain closed to non-US personnel during this testing.
From the start of September, software will be loaded onto the aircraft, Palmer said, before the first flight will takes place in the first or second week of October.
Customer F-35 acceptance flights at the Cameri, Italy, final assembly line, will always be executed by Defense Contract Management Agency pilots, Lockheed said. Both of the first two Italian pilots to train on the F-35 in the US will be test pilots and will return to Italy.
After the test flights, AL-1 will return to the aircraft final finishes building AFF for any touch-ups required at the end of November before official delivery takes place in December.
"Since our contract is with the US government, the plane is officially delivered to them, and then immediately on to the Italian government," Palmer said.
When AL-1 and AL-2 are ready, both will make the trans-Atlantic flight to the US early in 2016. In total, 11 Italian aircraft will go to the US for Italian Air Force and Navy pilot training. Air Force pilots will head for Luke to train on the conventional-takeoff-and-landing CTOL F35A, and both Italian Navy and Air Force pilots will train at Beaufort Air Force Base in South Carolina with the short-takeoff, vertical-landing (STOVL) variant.
Italy so far has ordered eight F-35As, including three from low-rate initial production run (LRIP) 6, three from LRIP 7 and two from LRIP 8, and has said it will order 38 by 2020.
The ordering of two aircraft from LRIP 8 in the latter half of last year helped stave off an interruption in the flow of aircraft at the line, Palmer said.
"Lockheed Martin anticipates that formal negotiations will start for aircraft from LRIP 9 and 10 shortly, while long lead items have already been ordered," she said. The two lots of two and four aircraft will contain Italy's first STOVL F-35s.
Meanwhile, the first six F-35As are scheduled to be delivered by October 2016, with four more in 2017, four in 2018, seven in 2019 and 13 in 2010. That is far lower than the 24 aircraft a year the line was designed to handle, a drop due to Italy's trimming of its order.
One analyst said Cameri's future as a maintenance hub justified its existence, even if order numbers were down.
"Italy's investment of about €1 billion at Cameri is only justified if we look at the entire life-cycle of the JSF," said Michele Nones, head of the security and defense department at the Istituto Affari Internazionali, a Rome think tank partly funded by the Italian Foreign Ministry. "Strategically, Cameri has made sense. Holland is sending its planes, and there will be in the future about 700 to 800 F-35s in Europe."
In 2019, the line will produce its first Dutch JSFs, the result of an Italian-Dutch deal under which eight of the 13 aircraft produced in 2020 at Cameri will be Dutch.
Meanwhile Italy is planning ahead to Cameri's future as a maintenance, repair, overhaul and upkeep (MRO&U) hub.
"Italy is working with the JSF Joint Program Office [JPO] and Lockheed Martin to assure the facility is fully equipped to assure the sustainment demands of the forecasted fleet in Europe," Palmer said.
While Italy will have a certain amount of autonomy, MRO&U is a JSF program capability controlled by the JPO, she added.
"There will need to be a global pooling of resources," she said. "Equipment like power carts could be needed in an emergency situation somewhere in Europe, and if they are owned by the JPO, this would allow them to be easily shifted to meet operational need because they are directed by the JPO in support of all the countries of the JSF program."