Since January 16, 2015 the two Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) F-35s are stationed at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) in California, USA to participate in the Operational Test & Evaluation (OT&E) phase. After a flight of almost 5 hours, the two aircraft arrived from Eglin AFB, where the initial training took place for the pilots and technicians participating in the OT&E. Global Air Power Media spoke with the first Dutch F-35 pilot, Lieutenant-Colonel (LtCol.) Laurens Jan Vijge about the Dutch participation in the F-35 project.


The Netherlands officially became the owner of their first F-35A aircraft on July 25, 2013. A few months later the second aircraft followed. Both F-35s were flown to Eglin AFB in Florida where they were used in 2013 & 2014 in support of training Dutch personnel at the Integrated Training Center (ITC). The mission of this Center, which is part of the 33rd Fighter Wing, is to train world class pilots, technicians, air battle managers and intelligence personnel. During this timeframe the ITC had a total of about 50 F-35s, consisting of F-35As of the United States Air Force (USAF) and the RNLAF, F-35B of the United States Marine Corps (USMC) and the Royal Air Force (RAF)/Royal Navy Fleet Air Arms (RN FAA) and F-35C of the United States Navy (US Navy). The two Dutch F-35As were assigned to Eglin's 58th Fighter Squadron 'Mighty Gorillas'. Currently the 33rd FW is transitioning to an USAF F-35A only training fleet as the other services and partners are moving their training to Luke AFB (F-35A), MCAS Beaufort (F-35B) and NAS Lemoore (F-35C).


On October 31, 2014 the RNLAF 323 Tactical Training, Evaluation and Standardization Squadron (TACTESS) was deactivated at Leeuwarden AFB, The Netherlands, as an F-16 squadron. All F-16s, the staff and duties were taken over by the 322 squadron, which since has continued as the 322 TACTESS. A few days after deactivation the 323 squadron was reactivated as the first Dutch F-35 squadron, 323 Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES). The squadron is part of the Joint Operational Test Team (JOTT) at Edwards AFB. Besides the 3 US services (USAF, USMC, USN), the team consists of the United Kingdom, The Netherlands and Australia. The USAF unit (31 TES) is by far the largest with more than 170 men and six F-35s (of which two are spares). The Dutch detachment currently consists of 34 men and women, and is led by Colonel Albert de Smit. The team consists of mostly technicians, each specialized in certain field, e.g. maintenance, weapons and the many computer systems and has 4 pilots. The British team consists of a combination of staff of the RAF and RN FAA and has also two test aircraft. The Australian team is contributing to the JOTT with RAAF personnel but no aircraft.

RNLAF F-35A Lightning II

Since 2002, The Netherlands participates in the System Development and Demonstration process of the F-35. In 2009 the first aircraft was ordered and in 2010 the second aircraft was ordered.
Given the fact that both test aircraft were ordered at different times, they also were delivered from different batches, called Low Rate Initial Product (LRIP). For example, the first with serial number F-001, is from the LRIP-3 batch, while the F-002 is from LRIP-4. The differences are mainly found in the software versions, but also in some of the hardware components that are improved over time during the different LRIP phases. During the OT&E phase the software differences and most of the hardware differences between the two aircraft will be eliminated.
On December 18, 2013 LtCol Vijge made his first flight in the F-35A. "After many hours in the simulator the moment was finally there", Vijge says enthusiastically. He continues: "Once I was flying in the aircraft, I knew for sure that this will be the right aircraft for the RNLAF. Coming from the F-16, this is a huge step forward. The entire cockpit is digital. Actually it can be described as two large touchscreens, a kind of large tablets. Also remarkable in the cockpit of the F-35 is the missing Head-Up-Display (HUD). The HUD is actually replaced by a new helmet with Helmet-Mounted Display (HMD). The helmet projects all relevant information into the visor, so all that information is directly available for the pilot regardless of the viewing direction."
During his first flight Vijge was also surprised about the amount of power the aircraft has. He explains: "The F-35 is a little heavier than the F-16, but the power is really impressive. When comparing the top speeds out of the flight manuals, the F-35 remains a bit behind compared to the F-16. The F-16 can do Mach 2.05 in a clean configuration, but as soon as there are weapons or fuel tanks mounted the maximum allowable and achievable speed drops fast due to drag. The F-35 caries all of its weapon payloads internally and is therefore always able to reach its maximum speed of Mach 1.6."
The F-35 is equipped with a new system which combines radar and other sensor images into one real-time image. The LtCol. explains as follows: "In the cockpit of the current fleet of RNLAF F-16s, it is possible to generate a combined image created from the output of various sensors and radars. However, this system is somewhat error-sensitive due to the lower refresh rate. For the F-35, a very comprehensive new system has been developed, which gives combined accurate real-time information that we can use quickly. This is called Advanced Sensor Fusion." As stated, this system combines all the data coming from the many sensors, but also controls these sensors in order to obtain missing data. The system has the ability to share the acquired data and information within a designated network. This could be with for example a pilot's wingman, other formations or with command and control units elsewhere.


During the OT&E, the two aircraft will be used to test and evaluate the F-35 Air System as a whole for operational use. As such it's not only the airplane capabilities that will be tested during operationally representative flights, but maintenance, supply, IT and all other processes used to support operating the F-35 will be tested thoroughly. The RNLAF OT&E team will be responsible for documenting their findings and will support a smooth transition once the first F-35A's arrive in the Netherlands. "Participation in the OT&E phase provides the RNLAF a lot of valuable operational experience and information about the F-35, while we are working together closely with the Brits, Australians and Americans. Also, new developments can be monitored closely", Vijge explains. "This will enable us to adjust our preparations in the Netherlands relatively quickly if the need arises."


In February 2015 the majority of the Dutch House of Representatives agreed with buying another 8 F-35A's for the RNLAF. On Wednesday the 25th of March the Dutch Secretary of Defense Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert signed the contract which closed the acquisition deal. These aircraft are expected to be delivered in 2019 and will be part of LRIP-11. A couple of these will remain in the USA, to be used for training the next Dutch personnel at the Pilot Training Center at Luke AFB. Current plans foresee in the acquisition of a total of 37 F-35s for the RNLAF.

This article was published in Flugrevue 06-2015.

We would like to thank the RNLAF OT&E unit for their great hospitality.