The first operational UK pilot selected to fly the Lockheed Martin F-35B undertook his first training sortie in the Joint Strike Fighter on 19 March at Eglin AFB, Florida.
"It flies very smoothly," says Royal Air Force Sqn Ldr Frankie Buchler, who previously flew the Sepecat Jaguar and Eurofighter Typhoon. "Nothing unexpected, it went pretty well."
US Marine Corps Capt Daniel Flatley, who was flying as Buchler's instructor in another F-35B, says the purpose of the first training sortie was primarily to familiarise the student with the differences between the simulator and the real aircraft. Additionally, the student had to familiarise himself with flying the F-35B around the traffic pattern at the base.
"Really, the landing pattern is what we want to expose the student to on the first flight," Flatley says.
US Air Force
With one flight out of the way, Buchler has five more sorties to complete before undertaking his checkride in the F-35B. After he receives his initial qualifications in the aircraft, he will undertake an instructor pilot upgrade course.
Wg Cdr Jon Millington, the senior UK officer at Eglin AFB, says the next UK pilot to qualify on the F-35B will be Royal Navy Lt Cdr Ian Tidball, who will fly in the coming weeks.
The British pilots who are undergoing training at Eglin AFB are highly experienced aviators with operational test and weapons instructor pilot backgrounds, Buchler says.
Another pilot, who will eventually become the commander of the British F-35B operational test squadron, will be selected "shortly" - but that selection is currently on hold, Millington says. The UK is also training a dozen maintainers at the Florida base, he adds. More UK engineers and maintainers will undergo F-35 academics at the site starting in September 2013.
For the next few months, the first two UK pilots and maintainers will remain at Eglin AFB, operating as part of the USMC's VMFAT-501 squadron, until they move to Edwards AFB, California. The personnel are spilt 50:50 between the RAF and RN. "The 12 that we've got here plus our two pilots will form up the initial cadre of our test and evaluation squadron, which will move up to Edwards in the spring next year," Millington says. In addition to the British personnel, the two UK F-35Bs currently assigned to Eglin AFB will also be transferred to the California base.
Under the current plan, 17 Sqn, which is a joint RAF and RN unit, will conduct operational testing through 2015 to 2016, Millington says. If everything goes according schedule, the UK hopes to stand-up its first operational F-35B squadron consisting of RAF and RN personnel in 2018. But, Millington cautions, the dates are not set in ston,e given the F-35's programmatic fluctuations.
A third UK F-35B is expected to arrive this April at Eglin AFB, Millington says. The aircraft will be the first F-35 stationed at the base to be equipped with the more advanced Block 2A software. Aircraft currently at the base are in the older Block 1A and 1B configuration.