Naval pilots take F-35 Lightnings overseas for first time

The first overseas deployment by Royal Navy jet pilots in a decade will be to Cyprus – when UK F-35s leave home skies for the first time.

Two months of training in the eastern Mediterranean is lined up for the men and women of the Lightning Force and their state-of-the-art stealth fighters – preparation for their first spell of training aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth this autumn.

Not since September 2010 and the final weeks of the Harrier’s service have naval aviators taken a front-line fast jet overseas – also to the RAF’s air base at Akrotiri in southern Cyprus.

The Lightnings arrived in the UK last year, flying across the Atlantic to their new permanent home at RAF Marham.

Since then, they’ve been gradually developing the individual and collective tactics which will allow the UK’s only fifth-generation fighter to deploy around the world on combat operations either from the decks of HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales (from 2021), or from allied air bases such as Akrotiri.

This first overseas deployment of these world-beating British F-35s to RAF Akrotiri – together with their embarkation in HMS Queen Elizabeth for the first time in the autumn – are important milestones to prove their readiness for deployed operations anywhere in the world in defence of our national interests

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Philip Jones

“I’m extremely proud to see the squadron ready to deploy for the first time, particularly given the efforts that led to declaring initial operating capability earlier this year," said Lieutenant Commander Adam Hogg, 617 Squadron's Executive Officer. "None of this would be possible without the dedication and achievements of every rank and rate on the squadron.

"The hard work will have been worth it when the first aircraft touches down in Akrotiri, marking a new era of Fixed Wing aviation for the RN and following in the footsteps of 800 NAS’ final Harrier deployment to Cyprus almost a decade ago.

"Lightning brings a world-leading capability to the RN, RAF and wider Defence, and we’re looking forward to deploying with HMS Queen Elizabeth in the very near future.”

The spell in Cyprus is not solely about testing the air crews and their cutting-edge jets in clear, less-cluttered skies. Testing will also include some live firing.

The deployment will also train and test all aspects of moving the F-35 aircraft to a new location – including all the logistic support, maintenance, and personnel required to get the Lightning off the ground.

“This first overseas deployment of these world-beating British F-35s to RAF Akrotiri – together with their embarkation in HMS Queen Elizabeth for the first time in the autumn – are important milestones to prove their readiness for deployed operations anywhere in the world in defence of our national interests,” said First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Philip Jones.

Once the Mediterranean deployment is complete the Lightnings will return to Norfolk to gear up to sail with HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Eastern Seaboard of the USA in the late summer/early autumn.

So far all the F-35s operating from Marham serve with the RAF’s legendary 617 Squadron – the Dambusters – although two in every five personnel on the squadron are Royal Navy.

As part of the UK’s intention to buy more than 130 Lightnings, a second F-35 squadron will form next decade under Fleet Air Arm tutelage, 809 NAS.