Aircraft

F-35B: What You Need To Know About The Lightning Jet

Here is all you need to know about the fifth-generation aircraft.

British F-35Bs landed on aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth this month, ahead of the UK's first operational Carrier Strike Group deployment.

There are both British and American jets on board the Queen Elizabeth-class warship, which set sail from Portsmouth on Saturday evening.

The UK's Lightning aircraft will also be used in the fight against so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as part of Operation Shader.

Recent F-35B history

In February 2020, four F-35 Lightning fighter jets completed the first night landings on aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in UK waters.

It followed the aircraft operating from the carrier during the month before – the first time British fighter jets had operated from a Royal Navy aircraft carrier in home waters in a decade – and the first launch of a British F-35B from UK waters in December 2019.

The UK's F-35Bs programme made history in 2019 when the jets completed their first operational missions.

The Lightning jets flew alongside Typhoon aircraft over Iraq and Syria in support of Operation Shader – the UK's contribution to the fight against so-called Islamic State.

The aircraft began their first overseas deployment in May 2019, when six of the jets flew to RAF Akrotiri from RAF Marham.

It followed F-35B aircraft landing on the deck of the UK's new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth for the first time in 2018 as part of flight trials off the coast of the United States.

The landing was completed by US aircraft flown by British pilots, while UK jets landed on deck upon HMS Queen Elizabeth's return to Britain.

Earlier in the month, three new F-35Bs flew from America to RAF Marham, bringing the UK's complement of Lightnings to 21 – 18 based in Norfolk and three in the US.

F-35B on HMS Queen Elizabeth's ramp
US F-35B aircraft took part in flight trials with HMS Queen Elizabeth off the coast of the United States last year (Picture: Royal Navy).

Future plans

The UK has plans to eventually have 138 F-35Bs, with 48 of those by 2025.

The 138 figure was clarified last year by Sir Stephen Lovegrove as the "upper limit" of how many would be bought.

The UK owns 21 of the aircraft, 18 of those based at RAF Marham, with an order placed for an additional 30 jets.

Sir Stephen Lovegrove added he expects "more than 48" will eventually be purchased.

Then in March 2021, the Defence Command Paper outlined plans to increase the fleet "beyond the 48 aircraft that we have already ordered".

It is likely only one Queen Elizabeth-class vessel will be deployed at once, with the other in dock, and with up to two squadrons (around 24 F-35Bs) on an aircraft carrier at one time.

How much will it cost?

The overall programme is the most expensive weapons system in military history. An estimated cost from 2015 put the price at £78m per jet, without engine or electronics.

For everything included, the Lightning jets come in at a grand total of £190m.

Who uses the jets?

The Royal Air Force started utilising the jets in missions in 2019, after training concluded in the United States.

The Lightning Force, made up of RAF and Royal Navy personnel, is based at RAF Marham in Norfolk and oversees operations involving the UK's F-35B aircraft.

The following British squadrons fly the Lightning fighter jet:

  • 17 Squadron, which is stationed at California's Edwards Air Force Base and has been responsible for operational testing of the UK's F-35Bs since 2014
  • 617 Squadron, the first frontline F-35 unit, also known as the Dambusters, based at RAF Marham
  • 207 Squadron, which is the UK's F-35 Lightning training squadron, also based at Marham
  • 809 Naval Air Squadron, which is due to be stood up in 2023, will be the first Royal Navy formation to fly the F-35.

The F-35 programme is being rolled out internationally across the US, UK, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway, among others.

Israel claimed to be the first nation to use the aircraft in a combat situation, while the US conducted its first air strike using the F-35B in 2018.

Specifications

The jet measures 15.6m (51.2ft) in overall length, has a wingspan of 10.7m (35ft) and a height of 4.36m (14.3ft).

Its top speed comes in at 1.6 Mach or 1,200mph – that is 1.6 times the speed of sound.

The jet's maximum thrust tops 40,000lbs, it has an amazing range of 900 nautical miles and a combat radius of 833km.

The Lightning has a max G rating of 7G which can be compared to the g-force felt in Apollo 16 on re-entry to Earth (7.19g).

F-35B first landing on HMS Queen Elizabeth
A US version of the B during flight trials on HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2018 (Picture: MOD).

A lift fan mounted behind the jet's cockpit allows the jet's short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) capabilities.

Single-seat, single-engine fighters with integrated sensors, the warplanes will conduct missions and operations from the Royal Navy's Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

Unlike earlier generation fighter jets, the Lightning is designed to carry its weaponry internally, decreasing drag and its radar signature.

Depending on missions, the typical armament on the F-35B includes a 25mm cannon, two bays for air missiles, a further two for bombs up to 450kg.

There are also two wingtip mounds for air-to-air missiles and four for air-to-surface or ground missiles.

The jet itself is made by many different companies. The main contractor is Lockheed Martin, with BAE systems making about 15 pieces of each airframe and Rolls-Royce making the lift fan.

Life on board HMS Queen Elizabeth

The Lightning provides the fifth-generation carrier-strike capabilities to the Royal Navy's two new carriers – HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.

Rather than the traditional catapult launch, the F-35B takes off from HMS Queen Elizabeth via the ski jump ramp

The jet is capable of two types of landing – vertically onto the deck, and also through the shipborne rolling vertical landing, which uses forward airspeed, and allows the aircraft to bring back several thousand pounds of extra weight to the ship.

HMS Queen Elizabeth weighs 65,000 tonnes and has a top speed of 25 knots.

Her flight deck is 280m long and 70m wide, enough space for three football pitches.

HMS Queen Elizabeth
The flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth has the ability to transport 40 F-35 jets (Picture: MOD).