RAF FAIRFORD, England — Lockheed Martin and the US military collectively breathed a sigh of relief Thursday as three F-35As landed in England after the US Air Force's first transatlantic flight with the A-variant, two years after an engine fire prevented the aircraft from making its international debut at Farnborough Air Show.
The aircraft touched down at Royal Air Force Fairford at approximately 8:00 p.m., about a week before the aircraft's first UK appearance at Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT).
The other joint strike fighters slated to make an appearance during RIAT — three F-35Bs, including one jet meant for the UK's Royal Air Force — made the journey across the Atlantic Ocean the day before.
"We have a huge F-35 contingent here. All have been working together for the last six to seven months to make sure that this event is a success, which we have all expectations that it will be," said Maj. Will Andreotta, F-35A Lightning II heritage flight team commander and an F-35 pilot.
Three F-35As from Luke Air Force Base's 51st Fighter Wing took off from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia at about 8:00 a.m., meeting with KC-10 and KC-135 tankers over the Atlantic Ocean to be refueled. The planes flew over Greenland, south of Iceland and the west coast of Scotland into England. A fourth spare F-35 returned to the US midway.
An F-35A is refueled by a KC-10 tanker on June 30.
Photo Credit: Valerie Insinna/Staff
Each of the three remaining jets was refueled seven times during the almost eight-hour-long flight, refilling its tank via the KC-135 three times and via the KC-10 four times, which will likely become the standard in order to ensure jets always have enough gas to land even if the plane malfunctions, Andreotta said.
"We had zero issues with refueling today, and all the times I've refueled I've had zero issues," he said.
Refueling an F-35 is pretty much the same experience as other Air Force fighters, Senior Airman Erik Henry, a KC-10 boom operator, told Defense News during the transatlantic flight.
First the boom is lowered, maneuvered around the canopy and inserted into the receptacle behind the cockpit. For the F-35, special care must be taken to avoid scratching the aircraft's low observable skin, or risk damaging the aircraft's stealth capabilities.
"You don't want to scratch the skin of the aircraft," he said. "So you have to be very, very careful."
The F-35As will perform a "heritage flight" at RIAT along with F-22s and the P-51 Warbird before departing England on July 13. The Air Force is permitted to fly the joint strike fighter as a single ship if the Warbird drops out before the demonstration due to a scheduling conflict, Andreotta said. However, because the aircraft has not formally been fielded — initial operational capability could happen as early as August — the service opted to fly the F-35 with legacy aircraft.
"Obviously there are discussions going on right now about where we want to take the F-35 in airshows next year. Those decisions are still being made," he said.
The F-35B will conduct a flyby at Farnborough Air Show just days later.
An F-35A arrives at RAF Fairford on June 30. The plane will perform in a heritage flight as part of Royal International Air Tattoo.
Photo Credit: Valerie Insinna/Staff
The Air Force has 24 people deployed for the event, including pilots, maintainers, low observable technicians and other personnel responsible for doing everything from inspecting flight equipment to working out the sustainment tail for the aircraft, said Master Sgt. Evelando DeLeon, head of maintenance for the F-35 Heritage flight team. Twelve additional Lockheed Martin contractors are also available to support the event.
Throughout the deployment, pilots and maintainers will not use the deployable version of its logistics software, the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), he said. Instead, operators will "tunnel" off the ALIS mainframe through the internet, which allows maintainers to see the complete history of the aircraft.
RIAT will be the F-35's debut in the UK. The US military attempted in 2014 to send the F-35 to Farnborough Air Show but scrapped that plan weeks before the event when an F-35 engine caught fire during a training exercise, leading to the grounding of the entire fleet. After finding that the rubbing of components caused extreme temperatures that led to the fire, the F-35 joint program office implemented a fix to the F135 engine made by Pratt & Whitney.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.