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The three F-35Bs, plus a spare aircraft, carrying out final checks before departing © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

Wednesday 9 October saw three F-35B Lightnings of 617 Squadron depart from RAF Marham heading west, for the Lightning Force’s first westbound Atlantic crossing. Their initial destination was Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, in preparation for embarkation onboard the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth for Westlant 19. Chris Wood reports from Marham.

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Final checks © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

Westlant 19 is taking place off the eastern seaboard of the United States and involves six of the UK’s F-35Bs; three from 617 Squadron and three from 17 Squadron, which is the UK’s F-35B Test and Evaluation Squadron based at Edwards AFB, California. It is also expected that United States Marine Corps F-35Bs will be involved, as well as various Royal Navy rotary wing assets from 814 and 820 (Merlin HM2), 815 (Wildcat HMA2) and 845 (Merlin HC4) Naval Air Squadrons. The Commander UK Carrier Strike Group (COMUKCSG) also includes the Type 45 air defence destroyer HMS Dragon, the Type 23 anti submarine frigate HMS Northumberland and the fleet tanker RFA Tideforce.

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ASCOT 9821 leads the flight out to Marham’s runway 24 © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

Initial sea trials with the F-35B on HMS Queen Elizabeth were conducted last year during Westlant 18 using a pair of US aircraft from VX-23 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River. Westlant 19 will be the first time that British F-35Bs flown by British pilots have operated from a British aircraft carrier.

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‘Mother’! HMS Queen Elizabeth seen off the coast of Cornwall in December 2018 on return from Westlant 18 © Kevin Wills – Global Aviation Resource

According to Marham’s Station Commander, Group Captain Jim Beck “We’re making history here ….. what we’re going to do working with the carrier is game changing”. Gp Capt Beck was the first Officer Commanding 17 Squadron when it reformed as the F-35B Test and Evaluation Squadron at Edwards, and is one of the UK’s most experienced F-35 pilots.

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Gp Capt Jim Beck, RAF Marham’s Station Commander © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

Westlant 19 is the Operational Testing phase of the COMUKCSG’s development and is designed to put the aircraft, ships and supporting units through their paces. It allows the crews and equipment to operate under realistic warfighting scenarios to prepare them for their first operational deployment, scheduled for 2021.

The ultimate objective of Westlant 19 is to push both the F-35B and HMS Queen Elizabeth to their limits, to develop combat techniques for exploiting the aircraft’s capabilities in action and as part of a Carrier Strike Group. Integration is the key, it’s about ensuring that the units can fight as one.

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‘Finals!’ A view down the deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth © Kevin Wills – Global Aviation Resource

It will also allow the Squadron to get acclimatised to life onboard ship, which presents challenges not found when operating from shore bases, for both the pilots and the engineers. Wing Commander John Butcher is the Officer Commanding 617 Squadron and he has plenty of deck experience, of both stopping then landing and landing then stopping, having flown Harriers from HMS Illustrious and the Legacy Hornet with VMFAT-101 at MCAS Miramar, California. This appointment saw him operating off the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS John C Stennis.

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Wg Cdr John Butcher, Officer Commanding 617 Squadron © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

He explained that from the pilot’s perspective “.. the take off is relatively straightforward …. the landing is where the real challenge comes in. Not only is the aircraft carrier moving but the ramp (on the bow) and the two towers on the right hand (starboard) side of the ship provide certain challenging wind conditions that disturb the air around the aircraft and make the landing portion quite a challenge for the pilots.”

He went on to say “… it’s a huge difference for the engineers ….. they’ll be engineering aircraft that move with the ship which adds an extra bit of complexity to each engineering task”.

Overall they’ll be looking at “what are the major differences between operating on land and operating at sea, what are the things that we need to change …. what refinements does the ship need to make to allow better use of it as a platform for the F-35”.

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On its way, ASCOT 9823 heads west © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

The three 617 Squadron aircraft left Marham on time, but a couple of days later than originally planned, with two flown by Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots and one by a Royal Navy (RN) pilot. The flight was expected to take between nine and ten hours, with the aircraft refuelling some nine to ten times from an RAF Voyager KC2 from RAF Brize Norton. They were expected to embark a few days later.

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One of 617 Squadron’s F-35Bs takes on fuel from an RAF Voyager during Exercise Point Blank in November 2018 © Chris Wood – Global Aviation Resource

The Lightning Force, which currently comprises 617 Squadron, 17 Squadron and 207 Squadron, the F-35B Operational Conversion Unit, is manned by a mix of RAF and RN personnel, with roughly a 60% RAF and 40% RN split. According to Wg Cdr Butcher, around one third of the squadron personnel would be deploying, and he was looking forward to joining them.

The deployment is expected to last for around seven weeks, with the aircraft returning to Marham in late November. 617 Squadron is expected to embark in HMS Queen Elizabeth again next year.