Departing commander hails community spirit around expanding Norfolk air base
- Credit: Ian Burt
RAF Marham is set to become home to another squadron of stealth fighters after a further investment of more than £100m in the Norfolk air base.
Outgoing station commander Group Capt James Beck said the Lightning Force, which currently numbers 16 warplanes, would eventually increase to 48 aircraft.
Group Capt Beck said six more Lightnings would be arriving at Marham this year. They will form part of 809 Sqn, for whom new buildings and other infrastructure are being built, taking the number of squadrons at the Lightning's main land base to three - two operational, along with a training unit.
Group Capt Beck, who is handing over control of the station to Group Capt Phil Marr, said the base would continue to grow over the years to come.
"The future of Marham is all about the growth of the F-35," he said. "We're going to double our footprint in terms of operational squadrons with 809 standing up.""We're already in the process of finalising architectural details of where that's going to go.
"That's important because that's going to be a large contractural footprint coming in to build yet more infrastructure, a very high-level, high-security infrastructure which will be incredible for the station."
As well as servicemen and women, Marham will need growing numbers of civilian aerospace workers to join contractors Lockheed, Rolls Royce and BAE Systems' workforces who look after the complex aircraft.
Those who fly the fifth generation aircraft have needed to embrace a new mindset, with training conducted in simulators before climb into the cockpit for the first time. Group Capt Beck said some 50pc of flying was now conducted "synthetically".
Lightnings replaced the Tornado, a conventional jet fighter/bomber, which had served the RAF for more than 30 years, after it retired in February, 2019.
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"It's been an interesting period because we've not been able to take our foot off the gas," said Group Capt Beck. "We are the insurance policy for this country.
"The progress of F-35 has been monumental in the last couple of years."
As well as operating from and bases, like Marham, the F-35 can also operate from aircraft carriers.
A number of jets from Marham-based 617 Sqn have joined the navy's flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth on her maiden carrier strike group deployment to the Pacific region.
Strike group commander Commodore Steve Moorhouse said the voyage is "a visible demonstration of the Royal Navy’s resurgence after decades of contraction".
Group Capt Beck said the aircraft on the carrier had taken part in successful sorties over Iraq and Syria as the carrier group sailed east.
The global pandemic shot down the new CO's hopes of getting out into the community around the base soon after he touched down in Norfolk.
"That's when the community has been the most valuable to us," said Group Capt Beck. "I've asked thousands of people to stay on base and do what's right.
"They've looked at the community for support and that support has been there."
Group Capt Beck said one example was the support shown when pilots had to take part in night flights to train for their deployment on board HMS Queen Elizabeth.
"We had to night fly until two in the morning," he said. ""And actually the support was incredible and greatly appreciated because it was the middle of summer and it's not lost on me that we've got a big noise footprint down here."
Community spirit will be celebrated at this year's friends and families day, which will take place with limited numbers on the base.
"We realise how important that has been over when had ben an unprecedented period," said Group Capt Beck.
Group Capt Beck is awaiting news of his next posting from Whitehall. Group Capt Marr is no stranger to Norfolk, having served at Marham on four previous occasions.