Above: RAF F-35B ZM147 returning to RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, after the type’s first operational sortie on June 16. MOD Crown Copyright/RAF Cpl Jimmy Wise
SIX ROYAL Air Force F-35B Lightning IIs from 617 ‘Dambusters’ Squadron at RAF Marham, Norfolk, have completed a six-week training exercise at RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, which included the first operational combat missions over Iraq and Syria. Four of the six aircraft returned to Marham on July 2, while on the same day the remaining two flew to Amendola Air Base to conduct bilateral training with their Aeronautica Militare Italiana (AMI – Italian Air Force) counterparts at 32° Stormo, which also operates the F-35.
The six F-35Bs had departed from Marham for Cyprus on May 21 for Exercise Lightning Dawn, which was intended to prove the ability to operate the type away from its home base and building up its capabilities. On June 25, the Ministry of Defence announced that, due to outstanding performance of the aircraft, pilots and support staff during training on this deployment, the decision had been taken to use the aircraft on their first operational missions over Iraq and Syria, alongside Typhoon FGR4s, as part of the ongoing fight against Daesh.
The first RAF F-35B operational sorties were flown from Akrotiri on Sunday June 16 in support of Operation Shader, the UK contribution to the Global Coalition’s counter Daesh mission in Iraq and Syria. Officer Commanding 617 Squadron, Wing Commander John ‘Butch’ Butcher, along with another pilot from the unit, flew two aircraft, each equipped with two ASRAAM and two Paveway IV missiles, marking was the first time the aircraft has carried live weapons in a non-training capacity. The two aircraft conducted a patrol over Syria, and since then UK F-35s had flown a further 12 sorties up until June 25. Although they operated in an armed configuration, no ordnance was dropped during these missions.
Later this summer, 207 Squadron will stand-up at Marham as the F-35B Operational Conversion Unit for RAF and Royal Navy pilots. In autumn of this year, the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will return to the East Coast of the United States to conduct Operational Trials with 617 Squadron F-35Bs for the first time. The UK jets will conduct Operational Tests, alongside 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron, onboard the carrier in the USA during the WESTLANT 19 deployment. A planned cruise, probably to the Far East with a US Marine Corps F-35 squadron, will take place in late 2021.