Voyager provided Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) as the F-35s flew from Beaufort in South Carolina to RAF Marham in Norfolk, UK. The aircraft arrived in the UK on Wednesday 6th June.
The successful mission, which involved multiple refuelling points en route, reinforced Voyager’s capability to operate alongside the F-35B, which will be flown by both Royal Air Force and Royal Navy pilots.
Departing RAF Brize Norton on Sunday 3rd June, the first Voyager (ZZ330) flew to Charleston, South Carolina. From there it trailed the F-35s up the Eastern Seaboard where they met a further two Voyagers which had arrived at Gander, Canada, on 4th June.
Click here for a video of the F-35B Lightning II refuelling from the Voyager.
The F-35s then began the final stage of their 4000 mile journey to the UK, accompanied by the two Voyager tankers (ZZ335 and ZZ331). With the distances involved and the need for multiple refuels, the mission required meticulous planning.
Not only was this the first time Voyagers had trailed F-35s across the Atlantic. It was also the first time Voyagers had refuelled fast jets across the Atlantic in one hop, and the first time a pair of Voyagers had flown in cell formation on such a long range sortie.
Squadron Leader Jonathan Dainty, Captain of one of three Voyagers involved, said:
“The biggest challenge has been the coordination of all of the elements involved who were located at different airfields and in different time zones. We have flight planning software but it doesn’t change the fact that we have to communicate at range in a very clear and concise way.
“Departing from Charleston to meet the fast jets from Beaufort was not unusual but the rendezvous of our Voyager and four F-35s with two other Voyagers off the coast of Newfoundland was particularly unusual. Air-air refuelling is about providing as slick and easy a solution as possible for the F-35 pilots. We sat down with the Lightning pilots the day before the trail which was invaluable. It’s been a collaborative effort.”
Sean Butler, Head of Ground Operations (AirTanker), said:
"This was the most complex trail we've ever done. It required a lot of planning and coordination across the Voyager community, Force Headquarters and No. 617 Squadron. Over a nine hour flight, each fighter jet was refuelled nine times throughout its journey to RAF Marham. The successful delivery of the F-35B's to the UK was the result of a lot of strategic and tactical planning, collaboration and co-operation with the weather."
Building AAR capability alongside the F-35
Following the UK’s decision to acquire F-35B fifth-generation fighters, AAR trials took place in preparation for their arrival into service.
An extensive operation has been under way since then to plan delivery of the aircraft to the UK. Part of that involved a detailed training programme which took place in the US earlier this year. The training involved both the F-35 and Voyager, and their respective crews, successfully fine-tuning AAR requirements and gaining further operational experience.
Following successful delivery of the first four F35s to RAF Marham, five more aircraft are expected to be delivered to the UK by the end of July 2018.
Image and videos: Crown Copyright