Report and photography by Wayne Bennett
The iconic 617 Dambusters Squadron, Royal Air Force, have come home to their Marham base after a spell in the United States working up on their brand new Lockheed F-35B Lighting aircraft. We were on the spot to see the first four aircraft arrive following their journey across the Atlantic supported by three Airbus Voyagers, ZZ330 (callsign Ascot 9101), ZZ331 (Ascot 9103) and ZZ335 (Ascot 9102) together with a supporting Airbus Atlas serial ZM410 (Ascot 4085), all from RAF Brize norton. The departure point was MCAS Beaufort, a US Marine Corps base in South Carolina where 617Sqn have been getting to grips with their new mount. The first four aircraft were serialled ZM145 to ZM148 and the leader used callsign Ascot 9511. With a touch of class, upon arrival at Marham they even landed in ascending order of serial number with the lead aircraft, ZM145, being flown by Wing Commander John Butcher, the commanding officer of 617 Squadron. Also on hand and flying the second aircraft was Lieutenant Commander Adam Hogg RN, illustrating how the crews of all future UK Lightning units will be made up of personnel from both services.
617 Squadron was formed in 1943 in top secret especially for the planned Dams raid, for which they were equipped with specially converted Lancasters that were able to drop the Upkeep mine, designed for the raid by Barnes Wallis. The squadron’s first commander being Wing Commander Guy Gibson. Later in the war the unit sank the German battleship Tirpitz, by using different modified Lancasters carrying a different Barnes Wallis designed bomb, the 12,000lb Tallboy. In post war service 617 flew the Canberra, Britain’s first jet bomber, and the legendary Avro Vulcan V-bomber that they operated until 1982. Since that time the unit operated the Panavia Tornado swing wing bomber for 35 years until disbanding last year. The planned out of service date for all the Tornadoes serving with the RAF is 2019.
The F-35B is an advanced, fifth generation, STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) LO (Low Observable, or stealthy) strike fighter. The UK is the only Tier 1 industrial partner in the F-35 programme and the STOVL capable F-35B model was developed expressly for the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and US Marine Corps. UK F-35’s will operate as a joint force between the RAF and FAA and, as 617Sqn RAF was the first operational unit, 809Sqn FAA will be the second. Crews will be a mix from the two services on all squadrons ensuring inter-operability from the two new aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. The UK order for the F-35B covers 48 aircraft, from a planned total of 138 eventually.
Enjoy the photographs of this historic event.