RNLAF F-35A Lightning II deploys to the Netherlands

Back in January 2015, in a debate with local residents from Volkel Air Base, Minister of Defence Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert announced her commitment to send a F-35 Lightning II to the Netherlands for so called noise perception flights. One year of planning later the flights took place at the end of May 2016. Touchdown Aviation spoke to Col. Albert de Smit, detachment commander, to hear all about the objectives and planning of the deployment.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) F-35A Lightning II Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) detachment is based at Edwards Air Force base, California and operates two F-35A aircraft, acquired by the RNLAF and around 35 people. They are part of the larger F-35 Lightning II Joint Operational Test Team (JOTT) programme which consist of the US Air Force, Navy and Marines and the Air forces of the UK, Netherlands and Australia.

The detachment is tasked with testing and evaluating the F-35A before it's taken into operational use at Leeuwarden first in 2019. Though an earlier arrival was not planned Col. de Smit explains how they turned the demand of the minister into an opportunity: "The minister asked us to come out here and perform the perception flights, that’s where it’s started. For us we obviously looked at the OT&E programme and we came to the realisation that it’s a good point, because we have deployments planned to various locations in the US including deployments from the Navy and Marines to their ships but we don’t really have any overseas deployments, which was missing in the planning at that point. (..)"

He continues: "We all came into realisation that this would be very useful, so not only us but the collective Operational Test (OT) community that said this is an interesting endeavour, and the programme officer in Washington saw this as a good thing as well. Obviously Lockheed Martin is happy with this as well as it's also PR but we're looking at it from a purely test perspective."

He stresses the importance of this deployment for the entire JOTT community: "It's not only we bring them here to do some perception flights, it's a deployment of three weeks in which we generate sorties and we are pushing as much as we can to generate these sorties to get into as much as a future deployment".

The preparations

On May 23rd, both RNLAF F-35 Lightning IIs touched down on Frisian soil after a two-part journey with the first part being flown from Edwards Afb on the West Coast to NAS Patuxent River on the East East two days earlier. Both RNLAF KDC-10 acted as support assets to refuel the F-35s and to transport the support personnel. The months before saw some extensive planning as it was the first time the F-35 was transferred Transatlantic from West to East. Col de Smit explained what's so special about it: "Transatlantic flights, (..) with fighters are always a challenge because all things need to line up: like arranging transport capacity; we need to be packed in time; need support with the right documentation; and (..) you need to be sure to get the overseas clearances in place. So you need a bunch of things that we’ve done with the F-16’s that we’ve been doing for 30 years, and to get them overseas is a challenge itself, and now we’ve did this with this new system which isn’t necessarily more complex, but it’s the first time we’re doing this; we’re deploying overseas with the aim to sustain operations."

Though this deployment marked the first East to West Atlantic crossing, the Italians did the other way around twice so far with Italian manufactured F-35s. According to Col. de Smit this couldn't be compared to each other: "Italy had, with a lot of Lockheed support, ferried the aircraft from Cameri, Italy to the East Coast but that’s a one off; out of the factory you fly to the US and then you get into an environment where there are more F-35s, parts and there’s everything there. We’re doing the opposite so you're going to a place where there’s potentially pretty nothing for the F-35."

Col. de Smit continues: "The preparation is to try to figure out what you don’t know and make sure you get into know, so it’s the analysis on what tools are we going to take with us because is it everything or just a subset, how many spare parts are we going to take with us. Normally that’s based upon experience, but that data doesn’t really exist because nobody really has done a deployment before or at least it's not mature. So there was a long time modelling to go figure out, based on the existing flying hours (..) and added some experience to try to figure out what is the spares back we're going to take with us. And even then you're always going to take in account that something breaks you haven’t anticipated on and you need parts you haven’t brought with you."

Col. de Smit also mentions that the logistic lines for spare parts needed attention: "In the preparations phase we wanted to make sure that we were not going to run into Customs issues. If we transfer parts for F-16s back and forward between the US and the Netherlands that's known, with licences etc. It’s not for the F-35. (..) Those simple things need to take care of. And it’s all because we’re doing it for the first time."

Another major event in the preparations phase was the certification of the RNLAF KDC-10 tanker platform to be able to refuel the F-35 in flight. The certification process took place in the first week of April and was led by the 418th Flight Test Squadron of the 412th Test Wing at Edwards AFB and executed by RNLAF personnel and aircraft. According to Col. de Smit it was not a too difficult process: "We could benefit from the KC-10 certification that were already had taken place, which is a US tanker. There are a lot of similarities between the KDC-10 and KC-10: same boom system, same airframe, same flow. It's just using a camera system to steer the boom."

Operational tests

The deployment was scheduled to last three weeks, making it possible to coincide with the RNLAF Open Days or so called 'Luchtmachtdagen'. In that way the general public could meet the F-35 as well. The noise perception flights were scheduled in the first week of the deployment (more on that below) so there was plenty of time to set some other targets for the deployment. Col. de Smit explains: "For the deployment itself we're looking at a couple of focus areas, one of them is IT; how does the IT infrastructure, including ALIS (Autonomic Logistics Information System red.), support our operations and what kind of things are we going to figure out? It's opportunistic based, you can run into issues and then think about that.

He continues: "We're going to look at the logistics system; we order parts, and even already got a couple of parts in that we've ordered and we're going to see the transfer times between the moment of ordering and delivery and what kind of issues are we going to run into? That is important stuff, especially for the future. We are looking at the environment here. We're now operating in an area that's not been designed for the F-35 obviously. There's still work in progress for the first aircraft to arrive in 2019. There's been a lot of things identified that need to be changed at the base to accommodate the F-35 in 2019 but this period will generate potentially new things."

Not directly related to potential environment changes, but using the current environment as an opportunity to accelerate the test programme were the Hardened Aircraft Shelter (HAS) tests, executed in the first week of the deployment. At Edwards these shelters are not available (they're not even there) and initially those tests were scheduled later in the test programme. Right after arrival on Monday night, one of the aircraft (F-001) was put into a HAS and was prepared the other day. The tests itself were executed on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and completed that afternoon. Col. de Smit explains why it's so important to do these kind of tests: "It could potentially create challenges for a fighter aircraft because you put it in a concrete small environment. (..) If you start to run the aircraft, especially when you start powering up the motor, it causes vibrations. It also causes pollution and you need to make sure if it’s survivable for the people involved and if the stress for the aircraft isn’t getting too much as the aircraft is starting to shake." According to Col. de Smit the first test results showed that the F-35 is suitable to operate out of the HAS.

Because of these tests, only one aircraft (F-002) was available to fly sorties (and the noise perception flights as well) with the local F-16s from Leeuwarden and Volkel Afb for the first half of the deployment. When both aircraft were available again, more sorties were flown but only because all other objectives were met in an early stage. According to Col. de Smit it was not the mission tactics from the sorties itself that were learning points: "The emphasis is to just join sorties to get the whole system in motion. If we just keep on generating sorties we’re going to run into things and that’s where we’re going to learn from. (..) From an OT perspective, where OT is not just all about the flying or about the missions, it's an important part, but it is also IT systems, your manpower, foot printing your skills. Those areas are very important areas to validate." he concludes.

The interview was held when the deployment was in its second week. The day after the interview, the author got the opportunity to join the media flight with a RNLAF KDC-10. In the second part of the deployment a so called introductory flight was held where one F-35, accompanied by a F-16 photo ship, made a grand tour over the Netherlands at low altitude so the people could see the F-35. Furthermore, both F-35s took part in the Air Power demonstration at the RNLAF Open Days, marking the International Air Show debut for the type. More on that in our upcoming 'Luchtmachtdagen 2016' report.

Noise perception flights

In the end, main goal for the deployment was to execute the so called Noise Perception Flights at Volkel Afb and Leeuwarden Afb, the future main operating bases for the F-35 in the Netherlands. These flights were conducted with a delay of one day (the weather wasn't optimal to fly all planned profiles) on Thursday May 26th.

The F-35 flew in the afternoon and early evening, including an afterburner take-off, which was requested by the residents, the F-35 flew profiles alongside an F-16 - as they would normally do from both bases. The aircraft flew 28 sorties in order to give the local residents sufficient opportunity to really experience exact noise levels.

The author went to Volkel Afb to experience the difference in sound and loudness himself during the late afternoon flight, the second of the day. This sortie didn't saw an afterburner take off. On a personal note there wasn't clearly any difference in loudness. The sound of the F-35 is just different than the shrill sound of the F-16.

The Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) conducted noise level test during these test flights at several locations around both airbases and residents could take part in a survey to submit their personal experience. Generally, the survey states that the local residents note only small differences; this is supported by sound measurements in the nine settlements. The maximum difference was approximately 3dB.

During the interview with Col. de Smit the author asked for his opinion. Het states: "It's not very surprising as we did the training for the F-35 at Eglin Afb and there they made a huge issue of it before the F-35 came. It's not only in the Netherlands, it's everywhere (..). But eventually when the F-35 was there it was all ok so that gave us confidence that over here it's going to be ok as well. But just saying that is not achieving a goal. (..) Looking at the results it's good to see that what we anticipated on really is the case."

The author would like to thank all people involved in making this article possible, especially Col. Albert de Smit for the interview and Lt. Col. S.J. Plankman, Chief PAO for all media access.

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