A generational change in Australian airpower has been marked with the arrival of the first two Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters at RAAF Base Williamtown on Monday morning.
The two jets, serials A35-009 and -010, touched down at Williamtown around 10:20am from RAAF Base Amberley, where they had quietly landed on Wednesday afternoon after ferrying across the Pacific from Luke AFB in Arizona via Hawaii.
“How do you make a Chief happy?” quipped Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Leo Davies, pointing to the two F-35s behind him during the official welcome ceremony shortly after the aircraft shut down in their new ‘carports’ on the Williamtown flightline.
“Today marks a very important day for the Australian Defence Force, but particularly for the Royal Australian Air Force. Welcome to the latest chapter of the F-35 story, the most significant Royal Australian Air Force acquisition in our 97-year history.”
The once-in-a-generation delivery event comes 16 years after Australia first committed to the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program as a development partner nation in 2002, and 33 years after the first delivery of the aircraft the F-35A will succeed, the F/A-18 Hornet in May 1985.
Befitting that generational change, the official party to welcome the aircraft to Williamtown included Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove, Chief of Defence Force General Angus Campbell, Defence Minister Christopher Pyne, Defence Industry Minister Steve Ciobo, Lockheed Martin chairman, president and CEO Marillyn Hewson, and head of the F-35 Joint Project Office Vice Admiral Mat Winter.
“As our previous Chief has said, the JSF replaces nothing but changes everything,” Air Marshal Davies said, referencing the aircraft’s ability to network with and be a force-multiplier to other ADF capabilities.
“The F-35 is not just a fifth-generation fighter with speed, agility, and advanced information systems. It is a catalyst for transforming us into a fifth-generation fighting force.”
The F-35s touched down at Williamtown after arriving overhead the base in formation with four F/A-18 classic Hornets, with 3 Squadron commanding officer Wing Commander Darren Clare and Squadron Leader Ed Borrman (3SQN A Flight Commander) at the controls. 3SQN will now use the aircraft for a two-year validation and verification (V&V) of the jet in the Australian operating environment.
“It’s a pretty special feeling,” WGCDR Clare said of flying the aircraft into its new home base.
“Coming down here today was (the result of) a big team effort and I couldn’t have had a better team than the 3 Squadron maintenance support and logistics team, they’ve just been phenomenal in the last couple of days to get these jets ready for today.”
While A35-009 and 010 are the first F-35As to be based in Australia, they are not the first RAAF F-35As to visit Australia. In February 2017, A35-001 and 002 visited briefly to appear at the Avalon Airshow, but returned to the multi-national integrated training centre (ITC) which is operated by the USAF’s 61st Fighter Squadron (FS), at Luke AFB in Arizona to continue the RAAF’s commitment to the international training effort.
A35-009 and -010 had been handed over to the RAAF in August and September and were the first to be accepted directly into an Australian operational unit under RAAF airworthiness authority, with the previous eight being placed onto the USAF’s system via an RAAF Chief of Air Force directive.
The first eight RAAF F-35s will remain at the ITC at Luke and a further 15 F-35s will be delivered to 3SQN and the ITC at Luke in 2019.
To date eight Australian pilots and 27 maintainers have now been qualified on the F-35, while the 10 Australian jets have now flown more than 1,800 flight hours.
3SQN is scheduled to achieve an initial operational capability (IOC) with the F-35 by December 2020, and the RAAF will withdraw from the Luke AFB ITC in 2021 as 77SQN and then 75SQN swap their F/A-18s for F-35s.