The UK's first four new-generation strike aircraft touched down at the Royal Air Force's Marham base in Norfolk on the evening of 6 June, with the Lockheed Martin F-35Bs having completed a nonstop flight from South Carolina.

UK F-35B Marham - Crown Copyright

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Flown by pilots from the RAF's 617 Sqn, the short take-off and vertical landing F-35Bs had departed from the US Marine Corps' MCAS Beaufort base, accompanied by Airbus Defence & Space A330 Voyager tanker/transports.

UK F-35Bs Voyager - Crown Copyright

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The UK Ministry of Defence – which had previously said 617 Sqn's lead aircraft would be transferred from the USA "in the summer", says their arrival occurred two months ahead of schedule. It adds that this "provides an opportunity for support staff to get a head-start in getting the aircraft ready for operational service at the end of this year".

Operations at RAF Marham will be supported by a Lightning Team UK organisation which includes BAE Systems and Lockheed, plus F135 propulsion system suppliers Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce.

Describing the F-35 as "the most advanced and dynamic fighter jet in our history," chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier says: "With its stealth and other world-beating technologies, the F-35 Lightning takes the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy to a whole new level of capability."

The UK plans to declare initial operational capability with the F-35B by the end of this year for land-based missions. First trials of the STOVL type aboard the RN's aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will be conducted off the US east coast prior to this milestone, with the UK's carrier strike capability due to be reinstated in 2020.

Lockheed has so far delivered 15 F-35Bs to its UK customer, and the MoD says its potential requirement for the Lightning II remains for up to 138 examples.

UK F-35Bs - Crown Copyright

Crown Copyright

Further 617 Sqn aircraft will make the transatlantic flight later this year. Its other examples and around 150 RAF and RN personnel are currently at MCAS Beaufort and Edwards AFB in California, supporting training and test activities.