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British F35 jet makes its maiden flight
16 April 2012

The prototype of the Navy’s next-generation jet has taken to the skies for the first time over Texas.

BK1, the first UK trials version of the F35 Lightning II which will fly from Royal Navy carriers at the end of this decade, made its maiden flight at Fort Worth.

Pictures: Lockheed Martin

SOMEWHERE high above Texas this is the Navy’s next-generation jet taking to the skies for the very first time.

This is the maiden flight of BK1, the first trials version of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter – the stealthy fighter-bomber which will deliver the punch of the Royal Navy’s future carriers at the end of the decade.

Five months after rolling off the mile-long production line at Lockheed Martin’s works at Fort Worth in Texas, BK1 conducted a series of checks and tests on a 45-minute flight with test pilot Bill Gigliotti at the controls.

The jet, which is the short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the F35, will complete a series of company and government checkout flights before being handed over to the MOD later this year for training and operational tests at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

There has been intense media speculation about the F35 and the variant which may – or may not – fly from the decks of HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales.

Originally Britain plumped for the ‘jump jet’ version, the F35B, but following 2010’s Strategic Defence and Security Review decided instead on the traditional carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F35C, which will be launched by catapult and caught on the deck as it lands using arrestor wires.

The combat and mission systems of the ‘jump jet’ version of the F35 are all-but identical, so British aviators will be using BK-1 as a crucial learning experience – not least as the UK’s first F35C won’t be ready for testing for a few years.

The F35 marks a major leap in technology for Fleet Air Arm aviators – it’s the first ‘fifth generation’ fighter in the world (the Harrier was classed as third generation, Typhoons, Tornados, F15s and F18s are regarded as fourth generation).

“Not only is this a watershed moment for the Joint Strike Fighter programme, since BK1 is the first international F-35 to fly, but it also brings us one step closer to delivery of this essential fifth-generation capability for the UK," said RAF Group Captain Harv Smyth, the Joint Strike Fighter UK National Deputy.

Roughly one seventh of the F35 is being built in the UK, with an estimated 25,000 people working on components, parts and systems for the hi-tech strike fighter.

More than 3,000 aircraft are on the order books; right now around two a month are rolling off the production line at Fort Worth.  Come the summer that increases to four a month.

The first Fleet Air Arm pilot is expected to take to the skies in BK1 next year with the front-line F35 due to enter service with the RAF and Navy towards the end of the decade.