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F-35 Test And Evaluation Centre – Behind The Scenes

We exclusively go behind the scenes of the California test centre as the tempo rises to prepare the UK’s F-35B for deployment

This is the moment a Royal Air Force Voyager refuels a £190 million UK F-35B combat aircraft over the Nevada Desert in a test of the capabilities of the UK’s most advanced warplane.

As the tempo increases to prepare the UK’s F-35B for deployment, we exclusively go behind the scenes of the test centre in Edwards, California. 

The mid-air process is similar to that of refueling a Typhoon currently on Operation Shader and takes up to five minutes per jet to refuel.

The above BFBS video was shot from a Voyager close to Area 51 which is a highly classified remote detachment of Edwards Air Force Base, within the Nevada Test and Training Range.

Edwards Air Force Base is home to 17 Squadron which is responsible for testing the F-35B on behalf of 617 Squadron in the UK – preparing the jet ready for operations.

Boarding a Royal Air Force Voyager from RAF Brize Norton, we embarked on the 11 hour, 5,000 mile flight to Edwards Air Force Base California to meet 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron whose role is to ensure the F-35B is fit for purpose.

A unique mission to test out the capabilities of the UK’s most advanced warplane the F-35B for a weapons trial alongside international allies, assisted by the Voyager’s refuelling capabilities.

Flying over vast landscapes of desert, we land at the US Air Base famously known for conducting and supporting research and development of flight.

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It’s the home of space shuttle orbiter testing at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Centre and in 1947 Charles ‘Chuck’ Yeager became the first human to break the sound barrier.

The RAF's 17 Squadron has been stationed at Edwards since 2014, taking on the responsibility of bringing the UK’s first 5th generation combat aircraft into front-line service.

Wing Commander Jonathan Smith, Officer Commanding 17 Squadron, said: “617 Squadron are our main customers, that’s who we work for, so we provide them with the evidence of what the jet can do, and how best to do it.

“Day to day operations for 17 Squadron include two masters.

“The first being the Joint Operational Test Team, the multi-national team alongside the United States of America and the Dutch, where we are doing high-end tests including war-fighting tests.

“We test what would happen in the early days of a war, where there’s a lot of threat against us and we have to use the 5th generation capabilities of low observability, fused sensors and data links to gain access to parts of the battlespace for follow on fighters.

“That’s operational testing on how well the platform will do in a given threat scenario.

“Our other set of masters is air capability, where we carry out bespoke UK trials to provide evidence for initial operating capability.

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“Now we are providing evidence for initial operating capability maritime ready for the deployment to HMS Queen Elizabeth this Autumn.

“We’re looking more into the details of how British weapons are performing, and in doing so we have done in excess of 25 Paveway IV weapons drops.

“17 Squadron do testing with UK AWACS when we can, and we are going to test later on this year with Type 45 off the Eastern Seaboard when we go aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth.

“We test the UK’s mission data file set which is the computer programme that goes into telling our sensors how to find threats.”

A joint-service squadron made up of 80 personnel from the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, deployments to Edwards, California can last up to three years.

 “When you work with the United States you get a lot of benefits. 

“The key for us out here is the access to the ranges and the airspace which is phenomenal, you cannot replicate what we have here anywhere in the world short of going to conflicts.

“They have a lot of equipment and a lot of financial resources that they can throw at issues." 

The UK currently owns 17 F-35Bs, although the Ministry of Defence (MOD) plans to eventually own 138.

The jets, which cost around £190 million each, will be used by both RAF and Royal Navy pilots.

In the eyes of the Officer Commanding 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron, what makes the F-35B unique compared to any other aircraft?

“It’s got the stealth aspect, so the low observability, and more importantly to the pilot is the sensor fusion and the way data comes into the plane.

“It makes the pilot’s job a lot simpler, it doesn’t make it easy because that simplification then allows us to do more complicated missions than 4th generation fighters such as an F-15 or Typhoon because of the way that information is provided.”

On 17 Squadron, three pilots are responsible for testing the F-35B in the air, feeding back results to 617 Squadron in the UK.

One pilot, known as ‘Tills,' has been testing the F-35B at Edwards US Air Force Base for the last 18 months, having previously flown the Tornado and Typhoon operationally.

“The F-35B just brings a whole new capability to anything we’ve had before.

“Mission sets that we haven’t had before that we can now execute in different conflict scenarios.

“We’re on tenterhooks with 617 Squadron back in the UK because anything they discover or anything they have an interest in, they’ll come to us.

“Edwards is the home of modern jet aviation post war - this is the location where the sound barrier was broken, it’s the bed of progression from where we were to where we are now.

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“Being conscious of the danger and the sacrifices a lot of former pilots made to get where we are today can’t be lost on you coming here.

“All the streets are named after poor guys who had smashed into the ground doing experimental tests, there’s so much history here.”  

With those threats in hand, does that make Tills nervous in his vital role of testing the F-35B?

“No, if I started getting nervous every time I got in a jet I’d have to stop.

“We have to trust the training but yes, it is dangerous and people do get hurt and people die, you have to be conscious of that but I don’t think you can be nervous.”

British F-35Bs have now completed their first operational mission with 617 Squadron taking part in 13 sorties over Iraq and Syria.

The first mission took place on 16 June over Syria, with two F-35Bs taking part.