The F-35A Lightning II is a jack of all trades and a master of them all – a Swiss Army knife aircraft that defines itself as a fighter but can take on almost any mission conceivable. It can – deep breaths – locate enemy forces or jam their radars to disrupt attacks; share detailed communications with air, ground, and sea assets; operate in stealth, even in unknown areas and fly at Mach 1.6, long-range, even with a full complement of weapons and fuel. In a nutshell, it’s the most technologically advanced piece of metal man has put in the air.
It comes in three variants: the F-35A – purchased by Australia – is a conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) version; the F-35B is a short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) variant, and the final F-35C is the carrier type (CV). Over the coming years, Australia will acquire 72 as part of its $17 billion AIR 6000 Phase 2A/B program to replace the ageing F/A-18A/B Classic Hornets that have been in service with the RAAF since 1985. The first F-35A was delivered in December 2018 and the finished fleet will be based at RAAF Base Williamtown and RAAF Base Tindal. So far, 59 have landed on Australian soil.
Whisper it, but the coolest bit isn’t even the aircraft itself. It’s the sci-fi helmet. Every piece of information a pilot needs to complete missions – speed, altitude, targets, etc. – is projected onto the visor rather than on a traditional display in the cockpit. But it’s also intelligent enough not to bombard Top Guns with too much information, allowing them a 360-degree view of the battlefield so they can spot approaching enemies with their eyes.
A fitting successor, then, to the retiring Hornet.
Career highlight: In June 2021, the F-35 for the first time flew with a full complement of weapons during Exercise Arnhem Thunder. In addition to their internal payload, the F-35s departed with laser-guided GBU-12 bombs attached to their under-wing pylons.
Fleet: 59 delivered
Purchased: 2002 (first arrived in 2018)
Wingspan: 35 feet (10.7m)
Operated: No. 3 Squadron, No. 75 Squadron
Speed: Mach 1.6 (1,930km/h)
Based: RAAF Bases Williamtown and Tindal.
Range: More than 1,350 miles with internal fuel (1,200+ nautical miles)