Tag Archives: Lightning II

USA turns Norway into new stronghold, includes F-22

In the wake of Russia’s higher military activity ever since Moscow took the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Norway is slowly growing into a US stronghold in the defence of Scandinavia. A conclusion drawn by Airheadsfly.com based on recent political and military deals, that include the possible basing of up to four US Air Force F-22 Raptors on the threshold of Oslo.

It seems like reading pages of a Cold War book, but the reinforcement of Norway as a base of US military operations in Scandinavia is slowly progressing for real – on the ground and in the air. Key seems to keep Southern Norway at all times under NATO air, ground, sea and cyberspace control. The area we talk about is roughly 500 square kilometres (320 sq miles) and includes Norway’s primary air force base of Ørland, the nearby reserve air base of Vaernes/Trondheim, NATO’s main tanker and transport reserve base of Sola (Stavanger), the reserve air base of Rygge (Moss) near the capital of Oslo, plus the main civilian airports of Olso-Gardermoen, Sondefjord/Skien and Florø. At the same time, the US is projecting its wings at the Norwegian outpost of Andøya in the Polar Circle.

A bunch of RNoAF marking RNoAF F-16 readiness over Rygge in 2010 (Image © Forsvaret)
A bunch of RNoAF fighters marking RNoAF F-16 readiness over Rygge in 2010 (Image © Forsvaret)

Quite unexpected Washington has asked Norway to make space at the no longer air-active Rygge Airbase/Moss Airport for four of its combat aircraft, and the US is willing to pay for the necessary infrastructure and support. According to Pentagon documents the top military brass wishes to be able to place at least four Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor stealthy air superiority fighters on Rygge. “Yes, the basing of these aircraft is one possibility, but it can be other types of aircraft as well,” Norwegian Minister of Defence Frank Bakke-Jensen confirmed to the Norwegian newspaper of Aftenposten on June 13th.

Rygge Air Base

Rygge was once a proud operating base for Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) F-16 jets, before 330 (Fighter) Squadron moved to Bodø in the north. For a long time the three RNoAF DA-20 Falcon reconnaissance and intelligence gathering aircraft of 717 Squadron operated from Rygge, before moving to Oslo-Gardermoen.

RNoAF Bell 412SP with serial 167 coming in low, sporting Gatling guns on both sides of the aircraft (Image © Torbjørn Kjosvold / Forsvarets mediesenter)
RNoAF Bell 412SP coming in low, sporting Gatling guns on both sides of the aircraft. (Image © Torbjørn Kjosvold / Forsvarets mediesenter)

Six Bell 412SPs ground support and assault choppers from 720 Squadron and the Westland Sea King SAR detachment of 330 Squadron flew from Rygge until the mother Rygge unit of 137 Air Wing was decommissioned in 2014. With regular air ops gone, the base did not fall asleep. The Air Operations Inspection, the Air Force’s Development and Competence Center, the Armed Forces Logistic Organisation, the Flight School Selection Center, the Oslofjord’s Home Guard (HV-01) and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation are still holding their offices on Rygge. Add the US Air Force with combat aircraft in the near future.

Marines Division in Norwegian caves

Further north the US Marines are progressing on their establishment. A new political deal between Washington and Olso allows the sea soldiers to grow from the current level of 330 to 700 troops at Camp Vaernes. From there they are protecting up to a Marines division (23,000 troops) worth of tanks, armoured and soft vehicles, ammunition, food, water and other supplies stored in caves on at least five locations in the area around Norway’s third largest city in population.

A Lockheed C-5 Galaxy just after take-off from Ramstein AB, Germany (Image © Marcel Burger)
A Lockheed C-5 Galaxy just after take-off (Image © Marcel Burger)

C-5 Galaxy at Vaernes

The marines unit is a semi-permanent one, officially rotating its personnel every few months through the adjacent Vaernes/Trondheim International Airport. The airfield is a main reinforcement hub in case of war and can handle up to six giant Lockheed C-5 Galaxy strategic airlifters plus loads of smaller aircraft at any time. Much of the military infrastructure of Cold War times is still intact and the army/marine barracks of the camp can accommodate up to 1,200 troops, both from the US Marines and the Trøndelag Home Guard (HV-12).

In a few years these pilot views on Ørland Main Air Station will be history, when these F-16s have been replace by the new F-35A Lightning II (Image © David Vo / Luftforsvaret)
In a few years these pilot views on Ørland Main Air Station will be history, when these F-16s have been replace by the new F-35A Lightning II (Image © David Vo / Luftforsvaret)

Ørland Main Operating Base

Vaernes is no longer an active military airbase for many decades, but it is still very well protected even without the USMC on site. It is situated deeply in a fjord, surrounded by mountains and has the Royal Norwegian Air Force’s primary airbase of Ørland just 50 km (43 miles) away. From there the RNoAF not only operates its core F-16 squadron, but also its brand-new Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II stealthy jets.

One of three RNoAF F-35s of the second batch just after landing on Ørland Air Base on 22 May 2018 (Image © Forsvaret)
One of three RNoAF F-35s of the second batch just after landing on Ørland Air Base on 22 May 2018 (Image © Forsvaret)

During the last week of May the F-35s doubled to six aircraft when a new batch of three arrived from the other side of the Atlantic. Another seven RNoAF F-35s are flying training missions from Luke AFB in Arizona, USA, and three more will arrive on Ørland this Autumn. Final plans call for 52 RNoAF Lightning II jets by 2024. Most of them will fly from Ørland, with Evenes near Harstand/Narvik in the north serving as a forward operating base.

A USMC CH-53 flew in to Vaernes by USAF C-5 Galaxy in February 2016 (Image © Cpl Dalton Precht / USMC)
A USMC CH-53 flew in to Vaernes by USAF C-5 Galaxy in February 2016 (Image © Cpl Dalton Precht / USMC)

Andøya Naval Air Base

While Evenes will also be home to the Royal Norwegian Air Force maritime patrol aircraft moving from Andøya, the US Navy is just starting operations from this very northern air base with its new Boeing P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft. The first of five USN P-8s landed at Andøya on June 8th, from where they will take over the defence and patrol of NATO’s northern flank from the aging six RNoAF P-3 Orion propeller aircraft. Even a USN C-40A Clipper was seen landing there, in support of the operations.

A RNoAF P-3C Orion from 333 squadron during the DV-day under the winter exercise Cold Response 2012 (Image © Torbjørn Kjosvold / Forsvarets mediesenter)
A RNoAF P-3C Orion from 333 squadron (Image © Torbjørn Kjosvold / Forsvarets mediesenter)

Oslo doesn’t want to say how long the US Navy presence on Andøya will be, but in the near future the RNoAF will fly five similar P-8s from Evenes Airbase further south. Norway ordered the pack to replace its six P-3s and three Dassault DA-20 Falcons in the years 2022 and 2023. The RNoAF 333 Squadron operating the P-3s has huge problems with fulfilling its task, both because the aircraft are not airworthy while repairs and maintenance are being slow, and because there is lack of key and supporting personnel in the unit. According to local newspapers 30 to 50 people quited or will quit working for the unit after the move from Andøya to Evenes was announced.

A USN P-8A Poseidon, a RNoAF P-3C Orion and a RNoAF C-130J Hercules at Andøya Air Station on 24 June 2017, during the 75 years anniversary of the Orion's 333 Squadron (Image © Forsvaret)
A USN P-8A Poseidon, a RNoAF P-3C Orion and a RNoAF C-130J Hercules at Andøya Air Station on 24 June 2017, during the 75 years anniversary of the Orion’s 333 Squadron (Image © Forsvaret)

While Norwegian armed forces readiness is partly failing the US seems eager to step in. Washington is even establishing closer ties with the non-NATO countries of Sweden and Finland, with both the governments in Stockholm and Helsinki signing deals recently for more military cooperation with the USA and more frequent joint military exercises. In case it ever comes to war in Northern Europe, the US seems to be better prepared and better military established than it has been there for 20 years.

© 2018 Airheadsfly.com editor Marcel Burger
Featured image: One of four F-22A Raptors the Pentagon wishes to be able to base on Rygge AB near Olso, Norway (Image © Elmer van Hest)

A NATO Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS leaving Ørland Main Air Station. As Norway doesn't have a flying radar, command and control plane available, NATO often provides one to defend its northern flank (Image © Nils Skipnes / Luftforsvaret / Forsvarets mediesenter)
A NATO Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS leaving Ørland Main Air Station. As Norway doesn’t have a flying radar, command and control plane available, NATO often provides one to defend its northern flank (Image © Nils Skipnes / Luftforsvaret / Forsvarets mediesenter)
From the back seat of a RNoAF F-16BM, closing in on an American B-52 training over Norway (Image © 331 SQN / Forsvaret)
From the back seat of a RNoAF F-16BM, closing in on an American B-52 training over Norway (Image © 331 SQN / Forsvaret)

Norwegian F-35 pilot: ‘We are on track’

He was the first Royal Norwegian Air Force pilot to fly the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II in November 2015. Since then, he flew the jet for 170 hours, all of those at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where he now serves as an instructor pilot. Right now, he and his Royal Norwegian Air Force colleagues begin preparations to ferry three F-35s to Norway later this year. It will be the first outing for the jet in the cold Nordic region. So, plenty of reasons for a chat with Morten ‘Dolby’ Hanche, who says fighting an F-16 in an F-35 is an ‘uneven fight’ – in favor of the new jet.

Related reading: Dutch Lignting testers. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

AHF: Hi! Can you describe your previous flight experience for us?
Hanche: “Most of my previous flight experience was in the F-16,  which I flew for more than 2200 hours. I am a graduate from the a US Navy Test Pilot School In Patuxent River. After having flown the F-35 for 170 hours, I can now say I am starting to feel “at home” in the airplane. Combined, the number of flight hours by Norwegian F-35 pilots now stands at 800 hours.”

AHF: So you guys will bring the F-35 to Norway later this year. How are you preparing for the ferry flight and subsequent operations in Norway?
Hanche: “We are on track, in terms of both educating technicians and pilots and preparing for the first aircraft arrival. The Norwegian Air Force prepares to bring its first three F-35s to Norwegian soil on November 2017. As usual, we will buy tanker support for the transit leg across the Atlantic.”

Morten ‘Dolby’ Hanche. (Image © Forsvaret)
(Image © Forsvaret)

AHF: Once in Norway, what does the plan look like?
Hanche: “Once in Norway, we will follow a crawl-walk-run approach as we start to familiarize ourselves with the F-35A in the “high North”, in adverse weather conditions. No one will have operated F-35s under quite the same circumstances at that point in time. Our only option therefore is to take it slow, and gradually increase the complexity of our training and testing.

The Norwegian Operational Testing (OT) will not focus on testing which has already been done in the US by the Joint Operational Test Team. Instead, we will focus on what’s unique for the Norwegian Armed Forces. That includes operating from icy runways and using the drag chute. That system is a unique factor: our F-35s will be fitted with a drag chute, which is designed to help slow the airplane during an aborted takeoff, or during landings on slippery runways.

Initial Operating Capability (IOC) is planned for 2019, which means that the time beforehand will be used both to train air- and ground-crew, and to support operational testing.”

AHF: In what way will the Norwegian public be introduced to the F-35?
Hanche: “There will be a reception ceremony at Ørland Main Air Station in south-central Norway, near Trondheim, in November. The planning is however still in the initial phase so we will release more details later.”

AHF: In what way is the F-35’s Autonomous Logisitics Information System (ALIS) be able to support operations in Norway? ALIS is plagued by development delays.
Hanche: “Some call ALIS the heart of the F 35, while others call it the brain of the F 35. ALIS is an information technology infrastructure that captures and analyzes aircraft condition data from the F-35, supporting fleet operations, maintenance, fault-prediction and supply chain management. ALIS will be delivered in time for the first aircraft arrival.”

AHF: What kind of weapon’s capability will the Norwegian F35s have?
Hanche: “At the time of IOC, the Norwegian F-35As will be equipped with the 25 mm cannon and the 25 mm APEX round, the AIM-9X block II, the AIM-120C7, GBU-12, GBU-31 and GBU-39. A little down the road, our F-35s will also carry several other air-to-air and air-to-ground stores, including the Joint Strike Missile (JSM). The JSM is in its final development phase, and our aim is to have the missile integrated on the F-35 and ready for service with the Norwegian Armed Forces by 2025.”

(Image © Forsvaret)

AHF: In the future, what will training look like for a Norwegian F-35 pilot, starting with initial training?
Hanche: “In the future, Norwegian F-35 training will be very similar to what we are currently doing with the F-16. We will send our young cadets through an initial screening program back home, in order to find out if they are able to absorb the training they will receive once in the USA. Following that, and an initial session at the Norwegian Air Force Academy for basic officer’s training, our students will complete basic training on the T-6 Texan II and the T-38 Talon at Sheppard Air Force Base. Following that, our students will be sent to Luke for a longer and more involved basic course.”

AHF: What can you tell us about the syllabus for Norwegian F-35 pilots?
Hanche: “The syllabus at Luke is tailored to the individual student but is now generally a  transition syllabus for pilots coming from different  airframes. This syllabus is shortened compared to the basic course syllabus which is designed to accommodate a young and inexperienced pilot, straight from undergraduate pilot training.

In general, the syllabus involves classroom academics, self-study, simulator practice and lastly flying the airplane. The students go through many weeks of ground training and simulator practice before it is time to strap into the jet. The initial training focuses on the basics: How to start up, take off and land. There is also significant emphasis on emergency procedures, in order to prepare the student for a myriad of “what if”-scenarios.

After learning the basics of how to operate the airplane in a pure administrative setting, the syllabus rapidly moves on with tactical employment. We start simple, and gradually build up in intensity and complexity.”

AHF: In what way does training in Luke prepare pilots for the Norwegian theater? What adaptations are needed?
Hanche: “The basic course at Luke will prepare our Norwegian students for the role as a wingman – a pilot who is qualified to fly the entire width of the tactical spectrum in the F-35. However, we will have to add on some aspects when we get our young pilots back home to Norway. One perspective is that the perpetual summer conditions found here in Arizona do not lay the foundation for solid instrument flying procedures. Therefore, we will put significant emphasis on brushing up this basic skill, combined with flying in adverse weather conditions. We do not foresee a checkout requirement for the drag chute, but it still has to be done. Lastly, we will focus on training our young pilots on more specific procedures, like executing NATO Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) missions.”

The first Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35 lands at Luke AFB. (Image © US Air Force / Staff Sgt. Marcy Copeland)
(Image © US Air Force / Staff Sgt. Marcy Copeland)

AHF: Luke is an international F-35 training school. What is the interaction between various nations like? Do Norwegian pilots fly with Australians colleagues for example?
Hanche:The partnership at Luke is very valuable for a small nation like Norway. We train and fly together here, using the same standards and tactics. We mix and match with aircrew and airplanes, so that one day you might find a four-ship of F-35As composed of a Norwegian flight-lead in an Italian F-35, a US wingman in a Norwegian F-35, an Italian element lead in a US F-35 and an Australian pilot in another Norwegian jet. The interaction across nationality is important for several reasons. First of all we build trust in each other, so that when we one day meet in a coalition setting, we know that we can work well together. Another perspective is that the standardization in how we do business makes it not only realistic, but easy to integrate a future coalition fleet of F-35s. Another perspective comes from the fact that the instructor cadre at Luke right now is composed of pilots with very different backgrounds. We have pilots here who flew everything from F-15Cs, F-15Es, A-10s, AMXs, F-22, Tornado, Eurofighter, F-18 and theF-16. Therefore, there’s a lot of varied and good knowledge gathered here to tap into, and it makes for an interesting and good learning environment.”

AHF: Is any testing being done by Norwegian pilots right now?
Hanche: “There is no dedicated operational testing going on at Luke. However, lessons are learned here at Luke from time to time, which might benefit the entire F-35 community. All the partner nations work closely with the F-35 Joint Program Office and Lockheed Martin, in order correct any deficiencies – deficiencies that are inevitable given such an advanced airplane.”

AHF: What has been your most memorable F-35 experience so far?
Hanche: “It is difficult to pick out one specific situation. However, the first flight in the F-35A was an obvious highlight. Several things immediately struck me on that first flight. For one how well the F-35A handles, both on the ground and in the air. It is a well-behaved airplane. Another early impression was how powerful the F-35A is. The Lightning has an impressive acceleration and rate of climb, and the airspeed can easily “run away” from you if you do not pay attention. Another more specific highlight would be the first time I fought F-16s. It was impressive to see just how uneven that fight is, in favor of the F-35.”

AHF: The Norwegians have trusted the F-16 with defending their country for close to four decades. What will happen to these F-16s?
Hanche: “As we receive the first Norwegian F-35, we will gradually phase out the aging F-16 by 2021. It has not been decided yet what then will happen to them.”

Many thanks to Morten ‘Dolby’ Hanche and Norwegian MoD for making this possible.

(Image © Forsvaret)

Our top 10 aviation moments of 2016

So that’s 2016 almost over and done with. This past year saw  military aviation headlines wizz by in a  record and sometimes worrying tempo. Donald Trump’s pending presidency along with Putin’s neverending desire to show Russia’s potential will decide the pace for 2017. But for now, let’s look back at a year that wothout a doubt had it’s moments here at Airheadsfly.com. And for all readers: thanks for doing so and a happy new year to you all!

10.

The Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford saw the F-35 for the first time. But this supposed star of the show was outstaged by the fabulous F-22 Raptor. Seeing is believing.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)

9.

Early in the year, we flew the Airbus Helicopters UH-72A Lakota helicopter, courtesy of the US Army in Germany.  They come in green but also in this wild combination of colours, which stands out against the German countryside…. like a bruised banana. Because that’s what these machines are nicknamed.

(Image © Dennis Spronk).

8.

A Lightning in blue skies. Early June, we boarded a Royal netherlands Air Force KDC-10 tanker aircraft for a sortie alongside the F-35A Lightning II over the North Sea. It’s in the air where the beast becomes a beauty.

(Image © Dennis Spronk)

7.

A beast, that is also what this Eurofighter Typhoon was at Fairford in July.  Fully tooled up and piloted by BAE Systems test pilot Nat Makepeace, this jet gave all other Typhoon diplays at the same airshow – and there were plenty- a run for their money.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)

6.

A top shot from Paweł Bondaryk, our guy in Poland. He was on scene when the Polish Air Force took delivery of its first Leonardo Aircraft M-346 Bielik trainer jets, capturing one of the aircraft peacefully after the delivery flight.

(Image © Paweł Bondaryk)

5.

Airheadsfly.com was also on scene on when both Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) touched Dutch soil for the first time on 23 May 2016. The weather did not cooperate in any way, but as both jets came to rest and festivities ended, all was well. “An awesome experience”, recounted one of the pilots.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)

4.

Between 21 February and 4 March, Portugal was the stage of annual exervise Real Thaw. Our contributor Jorge Ruivo was there to provide you with some much needed burner action. These burners belong to a US Air Force F-15C Eagle.

(Image © Jorge Ruivo)
(Image © Jorge Ruivo)

3.

So yeah, of course our flight in the Leonardo Aircraft M-346 Master has to be in this. With hundreds of pictures taken, it’s a pity that we can show only a small selection. Here’s one of formation leader Cobra 1 over a fine turqoise Italian coastline.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)

2.

Turkey made a lot of news headlines this year. And ok, technically it may have been 2015 when Dirk Jan de Ridder took this shot of two Turkish Air Force T-38 Talons. But we sure were glad to bring it to you in 2016 as part of a feature story on pilot training in Turkey. And given the fact that a lot of Turkish fast jet pilots were fired from duty after the failed coup, there’s a lot of training of new pilots to do.

(Image © Dirk Jan de Ridder)

1.

Looking back at 2016, it has to be said:  it was the year of the F-35 Lightning II. We learned a lot about the program during successful visits to Edwards Air Force Base in the US and Leeuwarden in the Netherlands. Furthermore, at Airheadsfly.com we were among the very first media ever to be allowed access to F-35 production in Cameri, Italy.

The F-35 program celebrated major steps in 2016, such as the Initial Operation Capability within the US Air Force, but also the delivery of more aircraft than even before, including new jets for Israel and Japan.

There were setback also: insulation problems kept many jets grounded for weeks, while Canada opted not to buy the F-35 for now. Last but not least, president-to-be Donald Trump started taking swings at the program’s costs. And yes, development of this jet is expensive and still has some way to go – but it will get there and it will be impressive. And perhaps prove necessary.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)

Trump’s focus on F-35 costs may serve US well

Donald Trump’s latest tweet on the F-35 will cause Lockheed Martin executives to have a not-so-merry Christmas, while the opposite will be true in the Boeing board room. After meeting top executives from both companies and being briefed on the F-35 this week, Trump on Thursday said he has asked Boeing to ‘price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet’.

Lockheed Martin’s stock immediately went down again, mirroring the effect of Trump’s earlier tweet about the F-35. However, the president-elect criticism  probably is not pointed at the F-35 itself, but at the program’s costs. Trump has made it very clear now that he will not accept such overruns after he moves into the White House in January. At the same time, Donald Trump seems to be preparing for an arms race, even stating this week that the US should expand its nuclear capabilities.

Being the businessman that he is, Trump obviously wants to keep the costs of such an arms race down. He probably realizes that his country is at a disadvantage compared to Russia and China, who are able to produce weaponry against far lower costs. China for example is developing new stealthy jets at an impressive and alarming rate. In Russia, a single new Sukhoi T-50 is many millions and millions of dollars cheaper than a single new F-35. This is indeed worrying for Trump. The signs of an arms race are already there and not to be ignored.

When it comes to the Boeing F-18 Super Hornet as an alternative for the Lockheed Martin F-35 – that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It will definitely not be as stealthy and not as capable in the domain of  gathering and spreading data. Also, the F-35 is getting closer to being fully combat ready every day.

But Trump most likely is not interested in ditching the F-35 in favour of a cheaper Super Hornet. He is interested in costs, and that may serve the US well in the end.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): A US Air Force F-35A, seen at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Exclusive: spotlight on F-35 production in Italy

In an enormous rectangular building in Cameri, Italy, a group of people swarms over the grey object that among them is known as AL-5. To others, it is known as the fifth Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II for the Italian Air Force. But judging by the language used, it’s not Italians who seem to turn AL-5 inside out. They are Americans, employed by Lockheed Martin and the US Department of Defense (DoD). And their job at hand is quality inspection of a factory fresh, Italian-made F-35 Lightning II.

An F-35A inflight. (Image © Lockheed Martin)
Related reading: F-35 takes a hit – from Canada. (Image © Lockheed Martin)

Airheadsfly.com’s recently paid a very exclusive visit to the rather secretive F-35’s Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facility in Cameri, which is run by Leonardo Aircraft and which rolled out its first F-35 in March 2015. The FACO is the result of extensive negotiations involving Italy, the US, Lockheed Martin and Leonardo Aircraft prior to 2010.

Development of the site started as soon as the ink was put on the contract. When epxloring the facility, it is hard to image that this 22-building, one million square feet complex was raised from the ground up in just three years. It is one of only three F-35 final assembly lines in the world, the others being Lockheed Martin’s production plant in Forth Worth, Texas, and Mitsubishi’s FACO in Nagoya, Japan.

Cameri sees final assembly of F-35A and B models for Italy, plus  F-35As for the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) in the future. Other potential customers  may follow as well. “So far, we have completed delivery of four jets to the Italian Air Force, and we’re getting ready to hand over AL-5 as well. The first four were flown to the US for pilot training, but the fifth will stay in Italy. It will be delivered to the 32nd Stormo (wing) at Amendola airbase soon”, says brigadier-general Giuseppe Lupoli, F-35 FACO program manager on behalf of the Italian Ministry of Defense.

(Image © Airheadsfly.com)
Work in progress on an F-35A for the Italian Air Force. Visible in the background is the first F-35B to be produced in Cameri. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)
An F-35A takes shape in one of 11 assembly docks in the Cameri FACO. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)
An F-35A takes shape in one of 11 assembly docks in the Cameri FACO. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)

Assembly

Situated in the center of the FACO is the assembly hall. It covers eleven assembly bays, in one of which Leonardo Aircraft employees now crawl under and over AL-8, the final aircraft of an initial order of eight F-35s from Italy. The same hall also covers five bays for future maintenace, repair and overhaul works on the Lightning II.

Whereas in Fort Worth the hugely expensive 5th generation fighter jets are manufactured on a moving production line, in Cameri an F-35 stays in a specific assembly bay for the whole build process, with parts being brought to the jet. “Our bay approach is certified by Lockheed Martin and elements of it have even been introduced in Fort Worth”, says Lupoli. At full speed, the Cameri FACO is said to be capable of delivering two new jets per month.

The first F-35 Lightning II from the assembly line in Italy (Image © Larry Bramblett / Lockheed Martin)
The first Cameri-built F-35 Lightning II was rolled out in March 2015.  (Image © Larry Bramblett / Lockheed Martin)

First F-35B

For now, production rate is not anywhere remotely near that. Most assembly bays remain unused and empty while awaiting a formal procurement decision from Rome. The exact numbers are debated for a considerable time already in Italy, but the country  currently is eyeing 52 more F-35As for its air force, plus 30 F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variants to be used by both navy and air force.  Meanwhile, the FACO understandably needs to keep the production flow going. Lupoli: “Because of long lead times, we are indeed moving ahead with production of parts for the next batch of jets.” Indeed, during Airheadsfly.com’s visit the first Italian F-35B was seen in final assembly, along with more A-models for the air force.

Dutch jets

Also, 2019 will see production of the first F-35s for the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The RNLAF has for several years been performing operational test and evaluation (OT&E) with its first two Lightnings in the US and should initially see delivery of six more from Fort Worth. The remaining 29 out of 37 aircraft ordered are to be assembled in Cameri.

(Image © Airheadsfly.com)
In Cameri, F-35s also receive their stealthy coating. Here, a full scale mock up is used to test the FACO’s associated installation. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)

Quality

In the Netherlands some concerns were raised over the fact that a 90 million USD aircraft designed and ordered in the US, is to be manufactured in an Italian factory. Those concerns were mainly about quality control…. and that’s were those Americans swarming over AL-5 come in. Not one F-35 leaves this FACO without a US pilot test flying it and without personnel from both Lockheed Martin and US DoD performing an inspection that easily lasts a couple of days. Pieces of blue tape on AL-5’s stealthy coating mark the spots that apparently are not up to standard.

Although their number has been greatly reduced since production got underway, the presence of US personnel in Italy comes as no surprise given the sensitive nature of the F-35. Lupoli: “Even with an aircraft destined for the Italian Air Force, we first hand it over to US DoD personnel for inspection and acceptance. Only then does US DoD hand it back  to our own air force. By doing so, quality control here in Cameri is totally in line with the US standard.”

(Image © Airheadsfly.com)
US personnel inspects AL-5 before acceptance. Only then will US DoD hand the aircraft over to its customer, being the Italian Air Force. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)

Wings

Apart from complete jets, the FACO also produces full wing sets for use in Fort Worth, with a maximum capacity of 72 sets per year. Quality control is equally strict here. Experts check each wing before it is ‘closed’, which means the upper skin is joined with the lower skin, making components inside unreachable without extensive repair jobs. Recently, faulty insulation on piping inside the wing forced Lockheed Martin to do exactly that kind of work on dozens of F-35s. According to the Italians, the problem was not found on Cameri-made wings.

The work done is testimony of the skills acquired by Leonardo Aircraft employees in just a few years’ time. In total, F-35 works in Cameri should generate an estimated 6,000 Italian jobs and add 15.8 billion USD to the Italian economy.

Lifespan
The Cameri site is projected to be in operation for at least forty years, during which focus will shift more and more to maintance, repair and overhaul of European. Lupoli: “Over the next 15 years, we expect to reduce the number of assembly bays and turn those into additional bays for F-35 maintenance.”

That’s no surpise, given the fact that Cameri back in 2014 was appointed as  the sole provider of heavy F-35 airframe maintenance in Europe. But to maintain one of the world’s most advanced and expensive military jets, this facility will first have to build them. To a passing visitor such as Airheadsfly.com, it seems the FACO is ready to fill those empty assembly bays and do exactly that. It seems ready to fulfill its projected contribution to the Italian economy as well as European defense needs. All it needs, are more actual F-35s to build.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): A view of F-35 production in Cameri. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)

The first F-35A for the Italian Air Force takes off from Cameri FACO (Image © Todd McQueen, Lockheed Martin
The first F-35A for the Italian Air Force took off from Cameri  in September 2015. (Image © Todd McQueen, Lockheed Martin)