The Lockheed Martin-built Lightning II jets, which will form the mainstay of the Dutch fighter fleet for the next five decades, landed at Leeuwarden Air Force Base in the northern Netherlands late on Monday, AFP reporters saw.
Also known as Joint Strike Fighters (JSF), the sleek planes were escorted by a business jet with Dutch Defence Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert on board after an eight-hour flight from the eastern United States which included multiple in-flight refuelling.
Designated “AN-1” and “AN-2”, the planes will undergo tests before returning to Edwards Air Force Base in California.
“This is the first time an F-35A touched down in northen Europe,” Lockheed Martin spokesman Michael Rein told AFP.
“It’s a historic day for Dutch aviation,” he said.
The jets will carry out at least eight flights to test the effects of engine sound on the environment as well as their adaptability to hangars at Dutch air bases, Dutch Air Force spokesman Frank den Edel said.
– Stealth technology –
The planes have two major distinguishing features, said Rein.
First is the stealth technology that makes it “virtually invisible from radar,” he said.
It also features what the manufacturers call “fusion” which is a “sensor built into the airplane, all the way around, so that when a pilot views out, he can get a 360-degree view of the world.”
“This is a first for the Netherlands,” Hennis-Plasschaert told AFP after greeting the pilots on the tarmac.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for us to have them here,” she added.
The planes will go on display to the public for the first time ever in Europe at an air show at Leeuwarden next month, ahead of the world-renowned Farnborough International Air Show in July.
They are not, however, the first of their kind to fly in Europe as a whole, with an Italian-assembled F-35 making a test flight in September last year and crossing over to the United States in February.
The Netherlands is one of nine partner countries helping to pay for the development of the futuristic F-35A.
The Netherlands has ordered 37 planes to replace its aging fleet of F16 fighters and the F35s are scheduled for delivery in 2019, reportedly at a total cost of around 4.5 billion euros ($5.0 billion).
– Controversy –
But the F-35 project is not without controversy.
The programme is expected to cost a whopping $1.5 trillion according to IHS Jane’s aviation desk editor Gareth Jennings.
And in the Netherlands, parliament has been split for years over the rising cost, with only senior ruling Dutch coalition partner, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberal VVD, remaining a staunch supporter.
The US government has projected the cost of each plane bought in 2018 as $85 million, according to Lockheed Martin.
A Pentagon report said in February that the F-35A remains dogged by problems sure to further complicate what is already the most expensive weapons project in history.
Engineers have recently uncovered a series of flaws adding to a litany of issues including software bugs, technical glitches and cost overruns.
Jennings however said the arrival of the Dutch F-35’s “marked an increased confidence in the platform.”
“It demonstrates that things are now moving along on a more even keel than ever before,” he said.