The Netherlands' first two F-35 Lightning II's landed at Leeuwarden Air Base on Monday May the 23rd. It marked the fifth-generation jet's first eastbound transatlantic crossing.
 A historic achievement for the program as well as the Dutch Air Force.

Words & Photography: Jeroen van Veenendaal and Kedar Karmarkar

Crossing


The Dutch Lightning II pilots flew from Edwards Air Force Base in California to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland in four hours. From there, it was an 8 hour flight over the Atlantic Ocean to Leeuwarden Air Base in The Netherlands. Pilot Col. Bert "Vidal" de Smit explains: "It was the first time we've made a flight this long. We've flown five hours as part of a test mission before, but eight hours is a long time."



2 RNLAF KDC-10 tanker aircraft provided fuel every 2000 kilometers, prolonging the crossing of the Atlantic.



Once in Dutch air space, the fifth gen planes were welcomed and escorted by a RNLAF Gulfstream with Dutch Defence Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert on board. She welcomed the pilots over the radio calling the crossing "a historic moment, a historic day" and told them it was "an amazing sight to greet you in the air".



The aircraft landed later than planned. Col. De Smit clarifies: "Air traffic control has to give us clearance, it's not easy to arrange a flight through airspace controlled by the USA, Canada, Greenland and Iceland as a package of two tanker aircraft and two F-35's, so we had a delay of 45 minutes."



Landing


The aircraft touched down Monday evening after conducting a fly-by for dozens of journalists from home and abroad and over a thousand plane spotters. Minister Jeanine Hennis and Air Force Commander Alexander Schnitger greeted the pilots, Col. Bert "Vidal" de Smit and Maj. Pascal "Smiley" Smaal, after they landed.



The two F-35s arrived in difficult weather conditions, with a low cloud base, and a fading visibility.



Once the canopy folded forward, the pilots received applause from the attending audience. "I am very pleased that we have succeeded to get the F-35 to the Netherlands," said Air Force Commander Schnitger, while the engines were powering down in the background.



Perception Flights


Part of their mission while in the Netherlands was making so-called "perception flights" at the request of Minister Hennis-Plasschaert. These flights were intended for residents that live near the future home bases Leeuwarden and Volkel so they could experience the noise level of the F-35 flying around, landing and starting from these two bases.

After these flights residents were able to fill out questionnaires about how they perceived the new jets noise, also compared the noise of the F-16.

Besides the perception flights, several other tests were be carried out with the jets performing flights over the North Sea range.



Air Force Days


The aircraft remained in the Netherlands for three weeks and made their international airshow debut at the Air Force Days at Leeuwarden AB. Commander Schnitger: "Now we can show this airplane to the Netherlands, to the population, the politicians. I'm incredibly proud of that. "



Weapon Instructor Course


There's more happening around the F-35 in Europe. Norway and the Netherlands agreed to jointly develop a weapons instructor course for the F-35. This was stipulated in a contract earlier in May. "We select the best fighter pilots for this course," said Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Schnitger.



In the fighter world, weapons instructor schools are common. Instructional skills in tactics, weapons deployment and aircraft technology are part of the course material. Pilots receive the training to become an instructor, transfering their knowledge and skills to their colleagues in their squadrons.



A Norwegian-Dutch F-35 weapons instructor course is not very surprising. Indeed, both countries have over 30 years combined experience with similar training with the F-16.

 The weapons instructor course for the F-35 will create a new generation of 'Top Gun' pilots for the 5th generation fighter aircraft.



Future


The Netherlands currently has four F-35 pilots and 27 F-35 maintainers. During the next three years that number will grow as the Netherlands prepares for a total force of 37 aircraft, starting deployment at Leeuwarden in 2019 and Volkel Air Base in 2021.



Meanwhile, the international development of the aircraft in California continues. There's still a lot of testing and development to be done.

To be continued...