RAF Wing Commander Beck discusses the F-35B Lightning in interview

RAF Wing Commander Jim Beck is one of the UK’s most experienced F-35 Lightning pilots, here he talks about the future of the jet aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth.

It’s no secret that the F-35 has had severe cost and schedule issues. The F-35 programme has gone through serious teething problems, problems also experienced by the majority of complex aircraft flying today such as the F-15, Typhoon or any other modern combat jet.

The biggest issue for the project continues to be the fact it is the most expensive military weapons system in history owing to the sheer scope of the programme but that being said, aircraft costs are now coming down and will soon be similar to the cost of many aircraft it’s replacing.

Today the programme is maturing rapidly, right now much of the activity around the jet is dealing with software bugs and testing to validate the software, with most of the physical testing being to do with weapons integration and the gradual scaling up of capabilities that comes with each new software block.

Wing Commander Beck began by discussing the capabilities the aircraft will bring to UK forces:

“The F-35 is the best aircraft I’ve ever flown. It is the most advanced multi-role fighter jet out there and the aircraft most suited to the UK’s needs. With huge flexibility and cutting-edge innovation, this supersonic, stealth aircraft will bring about a generation change in the way we fight in the Combat Air arena for many decades to come.

I’ve flown over 2,000 hours with Tornados, and have completed 7 operational tours in an 18 year career flying fast jets. I set up the first UK F-35 Squadron in the US, flown entirely under UK sovereign jurisdiction, flying the F-35 for over 300 hours myself. Hands down, it is the most capable and advanced aircraft I’ve ever flown.

The F-35B is the world’s first supersonic, radar-evading stealth aircraft that comes with short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) capability. This gives it huge flexibility, enabling it to take off from land or the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, the first of which is currently on sea trials.”

Beck added:

“The aircraft is the epitome of cutting-edge military innovation. Take the helmet: It uses Augmented Reality technology to allow pilots to look through 360 degrees, through the floor of the cockpit for example, at the ground below them. The aircraft is brimming with state of the art sensors, which provides the pilot with a vast array of game-changing information, enhancing their situational awareness so they can act rapidly and effectively. In terms of stealth, the Low Observable technology means the F-35 is incredibly hard to detect, providing a massive tactical advantage over the enemy.

The F-35 will be deployed on a uniquely wide range of operations, from air-to-air, air-to-ground and electronic combat, through to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Traditionally managed by several specialist aircraft, this can all be done by a single F-35 squadron.

We currently have over 100 British pilots and aircrew training in the US on our 10 F-35s before coming to the UK next year. In 2018 we will begin initial flight trials for the F-35 jets from HMS Queen Elizabeth, building towards delivering a carrier strike capability for the UK from 2020.”

On the value to UK industry he said:

“It is great news for UK industry, which will provide approximately 15% by value of every Lightning aircraft to be built. We will benefit hugely from the programme, after winning a contract to be the major global maintenance hub for avionics and aircraft components.”

Wing Commander Beck concluded with:

“The Lightning aircraft will bring about a step change in our air warfare capability for years to come.  Just ask the growing number of UK pilots who have flown the aircraft; they absolutely love it!

New aircraft often come under harsh scrutiny before entering service. Take the Typhoon fighter jet for instance. Before it came into service, the aircraft came under a lot of criticism from the media. But look at it now – we have 137 aircraft that have excelled in a variety of roles, from scrambling aircraft over British airspace, to reconnaissance and ground attack on a range of operations including the Falklands, the Baltics and Middle East.

Rest assured, the F-35 is the most advanced fighter jet out there and the best aircraft for the UK’s needs today and for decades to come.”

Follow the progress of the carrier programme here.


  1. All good and British, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, would it be wiser to entertain US F35’s ahead of the end of 2018, so deck crews and flight control get the heads up before the UK Lightnings are deployed?

    • I think it would be too politically embarrassing for the first jets to train and test-operate from the QEC to be non-UK. I suppose they could play a silly trick like landing one or two of the current UK ones and make a big publicity thing about it before quietly asking if a USMC squadron or two could then take over to work out the deck crews and flight control but I don’t think that is even necessary. With the slow delivery rate of our F-35 I suspect that starting the first on-board workup before the end of 2018 wouldn’t get us to the point of being operationally ready to sail with 24 F-35B any earlier than the current plan even if we did use USMC aircraft to get going earlier in 2018.

      • QE will slowly ramp up its squadrons of F35’s, and could be effective with as little as six aircraft, but in combination with a whole host of helicopters. Such a mix would prove formidable in a short term emergency situation. From what I’ve read and heard, PoW will be modified to take over Ocean’s role, plus fixed wing operation? That says to me, six to eight F35’s, would be a feasible objective for QE by early 2020. However, if only four were to be available, that would still allow for operational deployment in some measure.

  2. We are at the point next year when the UK F35b trials aircraft will be on the QEC deck. Then the future is progressing until in next few years very few nations will be able to match the UK in carrier aviation capability.

  3. If the genuine excitement of the various pilots are anything to go by we’re developing a very powerful capability. Now, if only we had some depth. Personnel, escorts, LHDs, missiles, … well, you all know!

  4. The most pressing thing that needs addressing is personal retention.

    Before we even think about additional kit, we have to arrest the decline in numbers, make the RN an attractive career for youngsters and persuade highly qualified people to stay.

    With regards to he QE class and the F35B, I have no doubt they will have a significant effect on potential enemies.

    The combined psychological effect of these valuable assets is far greater than the sum of their parts.

    UK Fleet Aircraft Carrier diplomacy is nearly back after a break of 40 years.

    • They will need to make sure the Royal Navy takes charge of these aircraft and not the RAF. otherwise we will end up with the disaster that was the combined harrier fleet. The RAF have different priorities to the RN so logic should dictate that the RN controls these naval assets.

  5. It doesn’t matter how good this Wing Commander says it will be, the truth is it would be infinitely better if the Fleet Air Arm owned and operated the maritime assets (yes including the future patrol aircraft) for the UK.

    Regarding numbers of F-35Bs, 138 is the absolute minimum required initially. The actual capacity of these carriers is well over the 36 jets commonly reported, with one admiral quoting 70; although I would put a caveat on regarding that number with respect to fuel and weapons stowages onboard; I would put it at between 50-60 allowing for the helicopter complements (including Crows Nest) also required.

    I wouldn’t use these carriers as LHAs, An Ocean replacement or two (!) are the best platforms for such operations while using the CVFs as top cover and ground support using fast air assets – Although I must say I am unimpressed by the payload capabilities of the F-35 (any variant), but it is what it is. I wouldn’t say the UK was missing carrier diplomacy for 40 years, the Invincible Class CVLs served The UK well, especially given the baptism of fire the first of class had in ’82.

  6. All well and good but no real numbers and power until 2023 when we will have a whole 24 F35Bs available for combat operations, this is a slow rate production and we need better commitment and clarification to the programme thereafter 2023. How many active aircraft will the UK be able to deploy? or are the 135 aircraft declared in SDSR2015 for the life of the F35 programme going to equate to only around 24-36 active aircraft only spread over 20-25 years.

  7. I am becoming more positive on things but agree that the no1 issue is personnel and organisation structure. This will become more acute as we need a 4th service arm in Cyber to start taking centre stage in the coming years.

    I would like to see a single force structure around 260k personnel (civilian and military) and for the government to make this a career of choice by investing in the military. This is down to my belief that the military does change peoples lives and also provides a very nice pipeline into industry of highly qualified, dedicated and disciplined people that frankly the UK needs.

    So all the kit being ordered is great, but I would really like to see a 25 year investment plan instead of the BS £178bn figure and even more importantly I would like to see a schedule that shows we are funded and committed to building x volume of ships, y land systems, z aircraft, every single year.

    Without this the carriers may be half empty in 10 years time and that is wholly unacceptable.

    • Career of choice – great idea.

      This is the kind of joined up big picture thinking that should be a cornerstone of our industrial strategy!

  8. This aircraft is so bad that even the US President wants it scrapped. It uses fuel to cool it’s engine, if the fuel temp is too high it wont even start, on ground bases ( RAF/USAF) the bowsers need to be refrigerated, it needs a special runway surface as the jet blast temps are too high for normal runways, the price is rediculous, for that price you could buy 5 or 6 SU 35’s a much better aircraft ( check you tube for the cobra manouver), and external weapons on a stealth aircraft are as much use as a hand brake on a canoe


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