As training with the new F-35B Lightning II stealth aircraft continues in Florida, USA, a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot has described how impressed he is with the ‘game-changing’ jet.
Flight Lieutenant Hugh Nichols completed his first sortie in the next-generation stealth fighter at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, United States earlier this month.
The Lightning II aircraft, together with the Typhoon FGR4, will provide the RAF combat air component essential to UK defence.
Flt Lt Nichols,the first RAF Number 1 Group pilot to fly the aircraft, said: “This is a notable step in the Lightning II story and one that marks a real shift in emphasis from development to employment.
“We’re also just starting to train the first No. 1 Group engineers here at Eglin, which is another important milestone in the development of the UK aspect of the programme.
“Lightning II’s advanced mission system sensors have done nothing but impress me so far and I have no doubt that this aircraft will deliver strategic, game-changing capabilities in future defence scenarios.
“To be the first No. 1 Group operational pilot is both an honour and a privilege and I look forward to helping stand up No. 617 (The Dambusters) Sqn in 2016 and bringing the jet back to the UK in 2018.”
Three UK pilots and 13 engineers from the RAF and Royal Navy are learning to operate the aircraft at Eglin under a partnering agreement with the United States Marine Corps, as part of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 501.Another 12 engineers recently arrived at Eglin for five months of trade training at the Lightning Academic Training Centre prior to being posted to Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort, South Carolina, and Edwards Air Force Base, California, in mid-2014.
Lightning II will be the UK’s 5th generation short take-off and vertical landing Joint Strike Asset. The multi-role supersonic stealth aircraft is planned to achieve initial operating capability in a land-based role from RAF Marham in 2018 and, alongside the Royal Navy, aboard the future HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier in 2020.
Flt Lt Nichols, who is 35 and was born in Epsom, Surrey, joined the RAF in April 2000 and has flown the Hawk and Harrier GR9 aircraft, as well as flying the F-16CJ on exchange with the U.S. Air Force.
He will go on to qualify as an F35B Instructor Pilot and will remain on VMFAT-501 Sqn until the UK stands up its first squadron at MCAS Beaufort in 2016.