The Royal Navy’s first pilot of its next-generation jump jet has said it will give the nation’s future carriers an unrivalled striking power.
After a month flying the F35B Lightning II – the most advanced stealth fighter in the world – Lieutenant Commander Ian Tidball has given the aircraft a glowing testimonial.
The Fleet Air Arm pilot is learning to fly the jet, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter alongside Squadron Leader Frankie Buchler from the RAF and is supported by a 13-strong team of British maintainers – seven are Royal Navy, six RAF.
Sqn Leader Buchler was the first British military non-test pilot to take the F35 aloft, with Lt Cdr Tidball following closely behind. Two Royal Navy reservists, in their ‘day jobs’ as test pilots, have also flown it: Cdr Simon Hargreaves and Lt Cdr Peter Wilson.
Speaking at Eglin Air Force Base, Lt Cdr Tidball – who has over 1,300 hours behind him in the cockpit of Harriers, followed by over 500 hours flying the United States Navy FA-18E/F Super Hornet – says the F35 is “an exceptional aircraft to fly”.
“It’s extremely responsive, it has a lot of available thrust and the fly-by-wire control system makes the aircraft simple to fly,” he said. “My background is the Sea Harrier – a pilot’s aeroplane, a stick and rudder type aircraft. The advanced flight control system in the F-35 reduces the amount of capacity I have to expend on simply flying the aircraft; instead it allows me to focus on operating the advanced mission systems and sensors so that I can employ the aircraft effectively in an operational environment.”
The small British team are based with VMFAT 501 – Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 which was formed in 2010 to bring the F35B into service with the US Marine Corps. Collectively, the British and American pilots are putting in eight to 12 sorties every day from the air base in north-west Florida.
The UK currently has three test versions of the F35B – the short take-off/vertical landing variant of the aircraft – which are being used not just to train the pilots, but also the engineers and technicians in the art of maintaining a stealth fighter which is two generations ahead of the Harrier, the Royal Navy’s last front-line fast jet.
Lt Cdr Tidball, who is from Weston-super-mare in Somerset and spent much of his career at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, says the shared experiences of the RN and RAF personnel “complement each other well”. Recently and for the first time ever the two pilots took up the initial two British prototypes for a joint flight.
“We are making good progress, it was really satisfying to be flying in formation with my RAF colleague in the first two British stealth fighters, it’s just another small milestone enroute to operational test and IOC” said Lt Cdr Tidball. “It really is an indication that this programme is going somewhere when you’ve got British pilots flying British aeroplanes – excellent. It’s a testament to the people that are not just flying it, but are maintaining it as well.”
Although the F35 is assembled in the USA by Lockheed Martin, the fighter is an Anglo- American venture with around one seventh of it designed and built in the UK. Around 130 British firms are providing parts and equipment for it, worth around £1bn per year to the UK economy.
Lt Cdr Tidball added: “The stealth capability and advanced systems will allow us to penetrate enemy airspace that we couldn’t have dreamed of in the Harrier; this combined with the aircrafts STOVL capability will allow us to operate off the Queen Elizabeth class carriers to deliver a maritime strike capability that’s frankly, unrivalled. I’m extremely excited about the aircraft getting on to the carrier. I really hope that I’m lucky enough to be there, flying one of these aircraft off it.”
Once training at Eglin is completed the British team is due to decamp from Florida to Edwards Air Force Base in California where they will carry out operational tests to prepare it for frontline service.
The Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force are due to start receiving front-line F35s in 2016, operating out of RAF Marham, near King’s Lynn, where land-based testing and training flights will continue through 2017. The first test flights from HMS Queen Elizabeth are planned in 2018.