UK Skies
Your guide to the UK's Aircraft Past & Present

F-35 Lightning II by Lockheed Martin

F-35 Lightning II by Lockheed Martin

The above photo was taken at Farnborough Airshow, Hampshire, UK - on July 5th 2016 where the F35 was performing low level aerobatics in the skies.

A 5th generation multirole stealth fighter

With massive advances made in military technology over the past decades, the United States is currently developing and testing the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, a 5th generation multirole stealth fighter.

The F-35 is designed with both ground attack and air defence in mind, hence its status as a multirole aircraft. Currently, the F-35 has three variants, all developed from the X-35 prototype which first flew in 2001.

F-35 development

The F-35 started out life as the X-35, a multirole fighter designed for the Joint Strike Fighter program in which the US Air Force commissioned a number of leading designers to build a 5th generation fighter.  The prototype was built and designed by Lockheed Martin, together with partners Northrop Grumman, Pratt and Whitney and the UK-based BAE Systems.

Although the aircraft is primary for use with the various air wings of the United States, many other countries have contributed funds towards its development. These include the United Kingdom, Norway, Canada, Italy, Australia, Turkey, Denmark and the Netherlands. The US has ordered around 2400 of these aircraft with many more orders coming in from development partners as well as other countries.

The development of the F-35 has not been without criticism. The program is severely over budget. In fact, in 2014 it was estimated that the development of the aircraft was at that point already $163 billion over budget and at least two years behind its intended schedule.

F-35 Air Power Demo

F-35 variants

Currently, the F-35 has three variants. These are:

  • The F-35A (a conventional take-off and landing aircraft)
  • The F-35B (a short take-off and vertical-landing aircraft)
  • The F-35C (a carrier based aircraft)


This multirole fighter version is capable of 9g flight. It will operate from conventional airfields for both the United States Air Force and its allies in both a defensive and offensive role. As it is envisaged to provide an air-to-air combat solution, it is the only variant armed with a cannon along with a host of missile options. The F-35A will be delivered to a host of countries in the near future. Currently, the F-35A operates from five US Air Force bases where it is still undergoing various operational tests as well as specific pilot training missions.


Designed specifically for use with the United States Marine Corps, the F-35B is a short take-off and vertical landing variant. This allows it to take off and land from smaller operational airfields as well as air-capable ships, although it can still use conventional airfields.

The F-35B includes a Rolls-Royce LiftFan propulsion system. This allows the engine to swivel up to 90 degrees when needed (but most notably on vertical landings). With this additional propulsion system, the F35-B has a far smaller weapons bay and cannot hold as much fuel as the F35-A. That said, currently there are 10 F-35B’s on active duty with the Marine Corp although they are still flying training missions. Both the Italian Air Force and the Royal Air Force will operate the F-35B as well.


Naval aviation came to the fore in World War II and to this day, remains an important part in any conflict. The F-35C is designed for carrier-based operations, specifically for the United States Navy. Interestingly, the F-35C is the first stealth fighter designed for these types of operations. This carrier-based version has some design changes to the other two variants. It features a stronger landing gear structure, as well as longer wingtips which fold, meaning it can be stored below decks far easier. It also has the longest range. This allows carriers to stay out of a threat zone while its F-35C’s can still attack enemy targets. Much like the other two variants, the F-35C is still undergoing some testing as well as pilot training.

The role of the UK in the development of the F-35

The United Kingdom has played a massive role in the development of the F-35 since its inception as part of the Joint Strike Fighter program. In fact, a British pilot was the first to fly the prototype X-35B even before the contract had been handed to Lockheed Martin. Of course, the short take-off and vertical landing design of the F-35B are not new to the Royal Air Force who have operated the Hawker Siddeley Harrier since the late ‘60s. The United States Marines saw the effectiveness of this aircraft and soon started building them under licence. The F35B is specifically designed to replace the older Harriers in the near future.

UK companies have also contributed to the F-35 in a number of ways. The Rolls-Royce LiftSystem is used as part of the power plant on the F-35B, giving it vertical landing capabilities. BAE systems, a key technological partner on the program, were very heavily involved with the development of the aircraft and provide a host of systems, including the following:

  • Flight control software
  • Electronic warfare systems
  • Active interceptor systems
  • The building of certain structural components.

In fact, BAE contributes around a 15% work share on each aircraft built as highlighted recently by and will continue to be involved in the maintenance of all aircraft worldwide. It is estimated that their involvement with the Joint Strike Fighter program will bring over £1 billion to the UK economy as well as add around 25 000 jobs in the country.

F35 Lightning specs

Herewith the specifications for the F-35A.

  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 15.7m
  • Wingspan: 10.7m
  • Height: 4.3m
  • Weight: 13,300kg
  • Powerplant: 1 x Pratt & Whitney F135 afterburning turbofan
  • Dry thrust: 125kN
  •  Thrust with afterburner: 191kN
  • Max speed: Mach 1,6 (1,930km/h)
  • Max range: 2,220km
  • Max altitude: 18,288m
  • Thrust/weight: 0.87 g-limit: +9 g
  • Guns: 1 x General Dynamics GAU-22/A Equalizer 25mm four-barrelled Gatling cannon
  • Hardpoints: 6 x external pylons, 4 x internal pylons
  • Max payload: 8,100kg

Armament: A range of air to air, air to ground and air to ship ordinance.