This is UK Navy’s next-generation strike fighter fully bombed-up in flight for the first time.
High above Maryland, just 50 miles outside the US capital, two of Britain’s F35 Lightning IIs carried out nine test flights carrying ASRAAM air-to-air missiles and Paveway IV laser-guided bombs.
Both are proven weapons – RAF Typhoons carry the ASRAAM, while the Paveway, which was carried by RN Harrier pilots in Afghanistan, is currently being used by the Air Force against Islamic State targets.
But neither weapon had been loaded on to an F-35B – the jump-jet variant of the stealth fighter-bomber – to see how the extra weight and shape of the weapons affects how the aircraft performs.
So dummy rounds – identical in form and weight to their live counterparts – were loaded on the jets by Fleet Air Arm and RAF technicians at Pax River airbase in Maryland, one of several sites across the Pond where Britons are working side-by-side with the American military to bring the hi-tech Lightning II into service.
Billie Flynn, test pilot for Lockheed Martin – the F35’s builder – and RAF Sqn Ldr Andy Edgell took to the skies with different configurations of both weapons types on the aircraft to see how the aircraft handled.
Pete ‘Wizzer’ Wilson, a lieutenant commander in the RNR and chief F35 test pilot for BAE Systems, who are developing around one sixth of the new aircraft with Lockheed, said:
The team at Pax River has got over 2,000 hours of flying under their belts for the F-35B variant and the handling and performance of the aircraft has shone through throughout
These latest trials were no exception and help us to move confidently into the next phase of weapons testing.
The successful handling tests will be followed in early 2015 by weapon separation and the guided release of both the ASRAAM and Paveway IV from the British F35s.
The jet will be the mainstay of HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, flying with two joint RAF/Fleet Air Squadrons – 617 and 809 – which will be based at RAF Marham in Norfolk.
As well as the trials models which are undergoing extensive testing in the USA, the MOD has ordered the first four of 14 production models for front-line service.
The first trials with the Lightning II from the deck of Queen Elizabeth in 2018 with the new aircraft fully operational two years later.
Press release, Image: UK Navy