Yesterday (December 10th 2018) saw the official delivery of the Royal Australian Air Force’s first two Lockheed Martin F-35 JSFs (also known at the Lightning II), at RAAF Base Williamtown, just north of Newcastle. While 10 aircraft have been delivered to the RAAF so far, they are currently used in the United States as part of the F-35A Pilot Training Center at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and, although two of these aircraft appeared in Australia previously at the 2017 Avalon International Airshow, they returned to the training unit at Luke immediately after the show, whereas the aircraft which arrived yesterday are the first to be permanently based here in Australia.
Known as a 5th Generation Fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-35 represents a quantum leap in technology and capability for the Air Force in replacing its classic F/A-18 Hornets so the RAAF were keen to mark the delivery of this new platform in suitable style. So, to ensure that as many people as possible had the chance to witness this momentous occasion, the RAAF arranged for a formation of F/A-18 Hornets to escort the two JSFs over Port Stephens and along the coast to Newcastle, passing major landmarks and viewing areas, before moving inland over the towns of Raymond Terrace and Medowie, which both have a long association with the base at Williamtown, before their scheduled arrival at Williamtown at 10:10 (on the 10th).
For those at Williamtown itself, the day’s events began with the departure of these Hornets (along with a camera-ship) under low cloud as they headed out to rendezvous with the F-35s as they made their way down from Amberly in Queensland, where they had spent the weekend after actually arriving on Australian soil last week. Given the significance of the occasion, it’s no surprise that the Hornet pilots involved weren’t just your run-of-the-mill Squadron pilots either. The formation was led by the Commanding Officer (CO) of 77SQN, WGCDR Jason Easthope (Easty) accompanied by CO 2OCU, WGCDR Scott Woodland, CO 75SQN, WGCDR Mick Grant, and XO 77SQN, SQNLDR Ben Sawley, ensuring an appropriate escort for the F-35s which will operated by 3 Squadron at Williamtown.
As we eagerly awaited the first glimpses of the combined formation off the coast, we were treated to a Classic Hornet handling display by FLTLT Matthew Trayling (Traylz), the current Air Force Hornet Display pilot and an experienced instructor at 2OCU. The low clouds from earlier in the morning had begun to clear but there was still plenty of moisture in the air which Traylz did his best to wring out with his energetic maneuvers, showing that the Hornet is still a machine to be reckoned with in the combat arena.
Finally it was time and just as Traylz was touching down at the end of his display, the formation could be seen approaching from the north-west, with the four Hornets in a diamond formation, escorting the two F-35s (A35-009 & -010) on either side. After passing overhead, they continued in a wide orbit and re-formed into an echelon formation for the initial-and-pitch for landing. After the Hornets had all touched down, the F-35s, flown by CO 3SQN, WGCDR Darren Clare, and A Flight Commander 3SQN, SQNLDR Red Borrman, each performed a missed approach, which gave us another chance to get a look at these new machines in the air, before finally touching down for the first time at their new home (for the record, WGCDR Darren Clare was the first to touch down in A35-009).
After landing, the aircraft were taxied to the brand new 3 Squadron flight-line facilities within the JSF precinct at Williamtown, a major investment which has seen dramatic changes made to the base in recent years, before finally shutting down.
Once the aircraft were safely parked, WGCDR Clare, SQNLDR Borrman, and the 3 Sqn F-35 ground crews were welcomed by a party of VVIPs which included The Governor General His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove & Lady Lynne Cosgrove; The Governor of New South Wales, His Excellency General the Honourable David Hurley, AC, DSC retd & Mrs Linda Hurley; the Minister for Defence, Christopher Pyne; the Minister for Defence Industries, Steven Ciobo; Secretary of Defence, Mr Greg Moriarty; Chairman, President and CEO of Lockheed Martin, Ms Marillyn Hewson; Program Executive Director F-35 Joint Project Office, Vice Admiral Mat Winter and Chief of Defence Force, General Angus Campbell.
The formal ceremony was hosted by Air Vice Marshal Leigh Gordon, Head of Joint Strike Fighter Division, and began with a traditional Welcome to Country Smoking Ceremony presented by Uncle Neville Lilley of the local Worimi people, traditional owners of the land at Williamtown. Speeches were given by Mr Christopher Pyne, Mr Steven Ciobo, Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Gavin “Leo” Davies, Ms Marillyn Hewson and Vice Admiral Mat Winter, laying out the commitment to the future of Australia’s Defence and the massive leap in capability which the F-35 represents, the employment and industry opportunities it provides, Australia’s key involvement in the global program and the project’s future goals, followed by a press opportunity in front of the aircraft.
It will be a little while before we see some more, with the next couple of F-35s due to be delivered around April next year, but from then-on deliveries will increase, with 10 due to be in service by the end of 2019 and all 72 due to be delivered by 2023. It’s a sight we can look forward to for many years to come.
On a personal note, having been present when the first two F/A-18s arrived at Williamtown all those years ago, I can still remember when the Hornet was “the best thing since sliced bread” and was a massive leap in capability over the ageing (but well-loved) Mirages which it replaced (aren’t the Hornets still the “new kids on the block?”). It is amazing to see just how far aviation and technology has progressed in the years since.
Our congratulations to the Royal Australian Air Force on this great milestone and sincere thanks to the PA team and all involved for the opportunity to witness it first-hand.
For more technical information on the Royal Australian Air Force’s F-35 please follow this link HERE