The new Officer Commanding Number 617 Squadron, Wing Commander John Butcher, has taken his first flight in an F-35B Lightning, the UK’s new multi-role stealth combat aircraft. 617 Sqn ‘Dambusters’ is designated as the first front line UK F-35B Lightning squadron and will return to RAF Marham next summer.
Speaking after his flight Wg Cdr Butcher said: “This was a memorable day and climbing into the cockpit for the first time felt really familiar as the simulator I have been training in is so realistic. This flight certainly marks the beginning of the end for 617 Squadron’s time at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort as we already look forward to our arrival back at RAF Marham in the summer of next year.
“It was a real thrill to finally fly this aircraft and it certainly exceeded my expectations. The capabilities and potential of this aircraft are immense and this is a very exciting time to be a fast jet pilot.”
The first flight followed weeks of ground school training and during his flight Wg Cdr Butcher flew over the Atlantic Ocean where he was able to explore how manoeuvrable the aircraft is before conducting some approaches at Beaufort.
Both Royal Air Force and Royal Navy pilots, maintainers and ground crew are currently training on the F-35 in South Carolina ahead of the return of 617 Squadron to RAF Marham in Norfolk next summer. Both US Marine Corps and British aircraft are operated on a pooled basis to train pilots from both countries. This training will continue in the USA until the summer of 2019 when 207 Squadron, which will form in 2019, will also return to Marham and start to train UK Lightning Force personnel autonomously.
The F-35 Lightning is an advanced, next generation aircraft procured to operate alongside the RAF’s Typhoon. The aircraft will be able to operate with equal capability from land and sea, and will form an integral part of Carrier Strike from the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers.
Wg Cdr Butcher is no stranger to America having served at MCAS Miramar in 2009-2012 as an instructor on the F/A-18 Hornet. He subsequently worked as the UK Requirements Manager at the Joint Strike Fighter Programme Office in Washington D.C. before joining the Lightning Force HQ as Chief of Staff.