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 ConvilleAir-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 DaintyCaptain of one of three Voyagers involved

28 COMMENTS

      • jack are you the oaf you appear to be?i respect other people’s comments made in good faith, maybe you should look up that word in a dictionary if you know how to use one.

      • “The Atlasisnt too ugly”. I agree with you Sean. It actually looks awesome. So does the Lightning. Bloody marvellous aircraft, both of them.

      • “The Atlasisnt too ugly”. I completely agree with you Sean. It actually looks awesome. So does the F-35. Great looking aircraft both!

      • steven, you are a tit. and i stick by my comment,yours is uncalled for. i’d have thought a regular poster like you would have more respect for other people’s opinions.

      • Oh come on they just look so different to what we are used to that our fixed idea of what is a beautiful just does not compute. Fact is they look mean and often its a mean looking machine that actually has the most appeal it isn’t purely on a predictable scale, indeed thats true of people as well, the brain is a complex machine in itself. Fact is I saw an old Vauxhall Viva a few days back I remember them being one of these looking cars around when I was at school now it just looks awful because our ideas of what a car should look like have changed so much. Take a modern car and drop it into the 1920s or 30s and most people would probably laugh at its looks.

        As for the Lightning II its a tough one, looks great from some angles especially around the twin fin and wings and underneath and a little underwhelming from certain others mostly from angled front where the peculiar arc of the under nose is a bit boat like and the cockpit (necessarily) from another age without the bubble canopy we are so used to now. Looks a tad 2 man trainer-ish rather than fighting aircraft. The single nozzle can look a little lego-ish too. But I guess its how it performs thats the main point.

  1. so much planning for one journey. I get that if this went tits up it would be a disaster for everyone PR wise but damn, if we had to deploy at a moment’s notice with our assets…could we do it?

    after a decade in the army tells me no, we’d be fucked. truly. I hope I’m wrong however.

    • Fortunately you’re wrong CJ. All of this planning can be done in less than 24 hours if necessary (less in an emergency). But it is essential that all missions are meticulously planned and briefed with all risks assessed and covered. Anything less would simply be unprofessional. Especially when there is no operational imperative or threat to the country.

  2. Wasn’t it the case in the Falklands War that for a single Vulcan to perform its mission it required no less than 11 Victor Tankers set up in relay ?

    • I don’t know what it was called or what channel it aired on (just maybe The Discovery Channel) but there was an entire documentary about the operation made quite a few years back, perhaps even a decade ago. It was an interesting watch.

      – Julian

  3. Well we support operations all over the world, 8000 miles to the Falklands being one. I flew on a Hercules with 8 sea Harriers FA2’s all the way to Malaysia in 2003 supported by VC10’s. We did that no problem. We have 16 fast jets permanently deployed to Cyprus supporting ops over Syria and Iraq, all the while we are participating in exercises such as red flag in Nevada, Typhoons have just deployed to the Baltics again,.we sent Typhoons to Japan last year for exercises. Our Voyager, Atlas and Hercules fleets provided an airlift capability only suppassed by the Americans. We are extremely good at deploying world wide. Never underestimate what we can do, and are doing every single day.

    • And we shall continue to do so! With better and more reliable aircraft. The aircrew and ground crew and supporting contractors will continue to be as committed and professional as ever.

  4. What motivates people to criticise and find fault unnecessarily is beyond me. This (hopefully) is the beginning of a great new chapter for U.K. Defence. Yes, perhaps too little and a little too late, but what I find annoying is that random and unjustified criticism of the kit itself, or capability it delivers, is an indirect criticism of the thousands that have and continue to be involved in design, development, production, test, training, operation and support of these assets. If you haven’t got something positive to say, don’t say anything. If you’ve got a genuine gripe at government policy or the senior Chiefs of Defence, say it but make it constructive. Don’t have a cheap shot at the kit itself or the people associated with it.

    • (Chris H) Richard – You have to realise that having Broadband in your house and a laptop instantly makes some folks think that makes them an expert in everything regardless of topic.

      At the risk of repeating myself when you look at where this country has come from in military equipment terms since 2010 (just 8 years) we should be hugely proud. But then that is just boring to the armchair experts …

      • what people forget is why the sdsr2010 was painful, almost all the new kit we have today or have planned, was still on the planning board after it. We are going through a major modernisation program which was massively overdue in some cases.

        The SDSR2010 was a short term cost saving exercise and not a lot else. We just got lucky that during the last 8 years there has been no need for a major deployment or we would have been in trouble. However we still have the major problem of lack of numbers when it comes to soldiers/sailors and this would likely out weigh the tech advantages in this upgrade cycle.

    • Well said SR.
      I did wonder about the logistics of the flight so it’s nice to get a little detail on it. A big chunk of the Voyager fleet were committed for this. I didn’t think about an Atlas being so closely involved- makes perfect sense. Great exercise and delivery by all- well done.

  5. I am a retired ex RAF and Civilian Aircraft Fitter and i still get great pleasure from watching Aircraft as they pass overhead.I live in Somerset and very often sit outside on my decking armed with my 20×50 bins waiting for the occasional A400 or Herc or Voyager to pass over. I was very disappointed to have missed the arrival of the Lightning and escort.Is there any information as to arrival times for the delivery/arrival of the next group?

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