The trans-Atlantic flight by four F-35B Lightning fast jets from the USA to their new permanent home at RAF Marham on the 6th of June represented a number of firsts for the RAF’s Air Mobility Force say the Ministry of Defence.
“In addition to being the first time RAF tanker aircraft had air-air refuelled the new stealth jets across the Atlantic, this was also the first time Voyager multi-role tankers had trailed fast jets across the pond in one hop. The operation, dubbed Thunder Trail, also saw a pair of Voyagers fly in cell formation on a long-distance trail for the first time.
With so many factors involved, including the weather at all diversion airfields and the sea state on the 4000-mile route, detailed planning and coordination were essential to cater for a variety of potential scenarios.”
The task of planning the complex operation is undertaken by the Air-Air Refuelling Cell at RAF Brize Norton.
“We started planning this trail six months ago. On all trails, you have to ensure that at no point is a jet dependent on tanker fuel so the route is planned so that they can divert safely if required.” – Master Engineer Phil Conville, Air-to-Air Refuelling Cell
Once airborne from Charleston in South Carolina Voyager callsign Ascot 9101 was quickly joined by five F-35s, the four for the UK plus an air spare which returned to MCAS Beaufort once the first refuelling was successfully completed. As the formation flew up the eastern seaboard and past New York City, each Lightning refuelled three times.
On reaching Newfoundland a pair of Voyagers which had departed Gander in Canada overtook the formation. At this point, the F-35s split into two pairs and joined each tanker for the onward journey to the UK.
“The biggest challenge has been the coordination of all of the elements involved who were located at different airfields and in different time zones. We have flight planning software but it doesn’t change the fact that we have to communicate at range in a very clear and concise way.” – Squadron Leader Jonathan Dainty, Captain of one of three Voyagers involved
“Departing from Charleston to meet the fast jets from Beaufort was not unusual but the rendezvous of our Voyager and four F-35s with two other Voyagers off the coast of Newfoundland was particularly unusual. Air-air refuelling is about providing as slick and easy a solution as possible for the F-35 pilots. We sat down with the Lightning pilots the day before the trail which was invaluable. It’s been a collaborative effort.”
Following the trail was an A400M Atlas carrying a support crew and all the spares that may be needed in the event F-35s had to divert for any reason. Known as the Sweeper, this was the first time the Atlas had been used in this role.
“On this trail, we are carrying 10 tonnes of spares and support equipment and personnel including engineers, armourers, survival equipment fitters, police and movers. In the event of a diversion to a suitable planned location, we would follow to provide support, fix any issues and enable the trail to continue on to the destination.” – Flight Lieutenant Dave Ellis, LXX Squadron, Atlas pilot.
“Having the A400m on the trail also means the Voyager can be freed up to carry the maximum amount of fuel possible.”
This summer a further trail will bring five more F-35s from the USA as 617 Squadron firmly establishes itself at RAF Marham.
“So the cell lead has to coordinate his departure with the other tanker and air traffic control pending our arrival. The key is to identify the potential pinch points and get ahead of them.” – Squadron Leader Jonathan Dainty, Captain of one of three Voyagers involved