Lightning II: A game changer for both the RAF and the Norfolk air base whose future it secured
- Credit: PA
RAF Marham's new fast jet is a 'game changing' warplane, says one of the first pilots to fly it.
The Norfolk base will be home to the Lightning II aircraft when it enters service in 2018, securing its future for decades, as the air force retires its Tornado fleet.
RAF pilots and ground crew have joined US airmen and women being trained to operate the Lightning, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, at the Eglin Air Force Base, in Florida.
Flight Lieut Hugh Nichols, one of the first RAF pilots to fly the supersonic jet, said: 'This is a notable step in the Lightning II story and one that marks a real shift in emphasis from development to employment.
'We're also continuing to train engineers here at Eglin, which is another important milestone in the development of the UK aspect of the programme.
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'Lightning II's advanced mission system sensors have done nothing but impress me so far and I have no doubt that this aircraft will deliver strategic, game-changing capabilities in future defence scenarios.'
Flight Lieut Nichols, 35, will help train members of the 617 'Dambusters' Squadron, currently based at RAF Lossiemouth. The Dambusters will move to Marham when they bring the first jets back from America, in 2018.
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Three UK pilots and 13 engineers from the RAF and Royal Navy are learning to operate the aircraft at Eglin under a partnering agreement with the United States Marine Corps, as part of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 501. Another 12 engineers recently arrived at Eglin for five months of trade training at the Lightning Academic Training Centre prior to being posted to Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort, South Carolina, and Edwards Air Force Base, California, in mid-2014.
Lightning II has been described by one test pilot as like as flying 'an iPhone on speed'. The short take-off and vertical landing plane will operate in a land-based role from Marham and aboard the future HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier from 2020.
The Lightning carries the latest precision weapons and arms pilots with a so-called 'God-Eye', giving them 360 degree vision via a digital helmet display.
The aircraft secured the future of RAF Marham as a fast jet base, after years of uncertainty over what would happen when the air force's long-serving Tornado was retired from service.
In July 2011, ministers announced the base would be home to its replacement, the Lightning, after the EDP ran a high-profile Make it Marham campaign.
The previous year, more than 36,000 signed a petition which we delivered to 10 Downing Street, calling for the new aircraft to be based in Norfolk.
RAF Marham supports more than 5,000 jobs and contributes millions each year to the wider Norfolk economy. As well as the aircraft, the high-tech engineering facilities needed to maintain them will also be located at Marham.