Breaking news today, as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II started its first operational deployment outside the US ever. Departing Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, on 9 January, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 headed for Iwakuni airbase in Japan, bringing along their F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) jets.
From Yuma and in the company of KC-10 tanker aircraft, the F-35s first headed for Elmendorf airbase in Alaska, from where they should continue to their new base Japan. Iwakuni is a regular destination for United States Marine Corps (USMC) fighter jets, but this marks the first time the F-35B is send abroad operationally and in fact marks the first operational deployment for the F-35 ever. The step can be regarded as a huge one for the F-35 program, the biggest and most expensive weapon’s program ever in history.
Operations & tests
In July 2015, VMFA-121 was the very first squadron to reach Initial Operational Capability (IOC) on Lockheed Martin’s 5th generation fighter jet. In October 2016, a contingent of USMC F-35B’s, pilots and maintainers participated in Developmental Test III and the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration aboard the USS America (LHA-6). The final test period ensured the plane could operate in the most extreme at-sea conditions, with a range of weapons loadouts and with the newest software variant.
China & Trump
The deployment was announced for this year earlier, but the apparent eagerness for the deployment comes a surprise. This could very well be to deter China from further venturing out in international waters, but also to show president-elect Donald Trump that the F-35 is perfectly capable of operational deployment. Trump, who is just ten days away from being inaugurated as the next US president, showed no sympathy for the F-35 in late 2016, hinting the US would be better of with more F/A-18 Super Hornets.
The year 2017 is likely to also see a deployment of US Air Force F-35s to Europe. The USAF reached IOC on the new jet in 2016. That same year saw US F-35s heading out to Europe for the first time, albeit not for actual operational flying. The purpose of that visit was taking part in airshows in the UK.
The year 2017 will be the year that for the first time in history sees joint air defense over four European countries. Not only are Belgium and the Netherlands operating a combined Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) since 1 January 2017, starting this summer the Czech Republic and Slovakia will do the same. The latter countries today agreed on cooperation.
The joint efforts are quite remarkable in a time of increasing international tension, although the combined effort of Belgium and the Netherlands has been on the cards for quite some time already. Whereas until last year both countries each had four F-16s on constant standby, they now take turns in keeping an eye out for airliners gone astray or potential threats, thus saving costs. Being small countries, they apparently can afford slighly longer transit times for the F-16s to get close to the action.
Czechs and Slovaks
The Czechs and Slovakians also talked about joint air defense before, but mostly in light of Slovakia maybe also leasing Saab Gripen fighter jets, as does the Czech Republic. While Slovakia for now continues to operate older MiG-29 Fulcrums, both countries today still agreed to keep a watch over each other’s skies. The agreement should be officaly ratified and come into effect later this year.
Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what effect the cooperation between Belgium and the Netherlands has on the former’s selection of a new fighter jet to replace the F-16. The Netherlands has already opted for the F-35 Lightning II, but Belgium is still undediced. The Belgians are looking at the F-35, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Saab gripen and Dassault Rafale.
The US Department of Defense is said to be looking into a apparent issue that causes the F-35C naval variant to bounce around too much during catapult launches from US Navy aircraft carriers. The culprit is said to be the jet’s nose gear. A so-called ‘red team’ is looking at the problem and a potential fix, which could take months or even years to fully implement.
The bouncing came apparent during sea trials and is said to cause momentary disorientation by F-35C pilots as they are launched from the flight deck. Pilots even mentoined physical pain during launches. The bouncing of the nose gear is clearly visible in this video, shot in 2014 during sea trials aboard aircraft carrier USS Nimitz off the coast of San Diego.
The US Navy is planning to reach Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for its F-35C in 2018, following in the footsteps of the United States Marine Corps (USMC) and the US Air Force. The former declared IOC for the F-35B in 2015, and the latter did so for the F-35A last year.
Pilatus Aircraft on Wednesday 4 January announced three seperate orders for a total of 21 PC-21 training turboprop aircraft. Seventeen of those are for the French Air Force, while the Royal Jordanian Air Force and QinetiQ, a UK company which operates the Empire Test Pilots’ School (ETPS), take two each. The total order is worth 280 million EUR.
In 2016, the French Air Force opted for the PC-21 to replace older Alpha Jet trainers now in use for training fast jet pilots. On 30 December, the French signed a contact with Babcock Mission Critical Services France (BMCSF) in which subcontractor Pilatus supplies 17 PC-21s for French Air Force training purposes.
QinetiQ is ordering two PC-21s for the famed ETPS at Boscome Down airfield in the UK. The PC-21s with their modified flight instruments will be used to train test pilots and flight test engineers for customers from the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
Royal Jordanian Air Force
The Royal Jordanian Air Force already ordered eight PC-21s earlier, after first eyeing the less advanced PC-9. The Jordanian now have ten PC-21 on orders. First deliveries are set for mid-2017.
The newest jet trainer made in Italy went to the skies for the first time on 29 December 2016, its maker Leonardo-Fnmeccanica Aircraft announced today. In rather adverse weather conditions, a spokesman confirmed, resulting in the lack of proper photographs of the achievement.
Hence the only photoshopped offical image we could find. Actually, making the first flight in bad weather is something we rather like. It may mean the manufacturer is confident of its product.
The prototype of the new Aermacchi M-345HET (High Efficiency Trainer) two-seat basic jet trainer took of from Venegono Superiore airfield in Varese, Italy, piloted by a crew of two: Quirino Bucci and Giacomo Iannelli from the Leonardo Aircraft Division.
As expected Quirino Bucci, Project Test Pilot Trainers of Leonardo Aircraft Division, expressed great satisfaction at the end of the 30 minute flight. “The aircraft conducted itself perfectly, meeting the expectations of the design parameters while showing excellent performance. The engine in particular demonstrated a great capacity to react to regime changes, which is a fundamental characteristic for a basic training aircraft.”
The M-345’s test campaign will be completed within 2017. The next tests will check the advanced avionics systems, the engine and the flight envelope expansion, including altitude, speed and manoeuvrability. Clean the aircraft is projected to reach 420 knots max level speed and a climb rate of 5,200 foot per minute. It should be operate up to 40,000 feet and as far as 760 nautical miles (1,410 km) with internal fuel. With 2 external fuel tanks the ferry range is aimed to be 1,000 nm (1,850 km).