No place like home: Lightning progress at RAF Marham

Britain’s new stealth fighter jet, the F-35B Lightning, is the world’s first aircraft to combine radar-evading stealth technology with supersonic speeds and the ability to conduct short take-offs and vertical landings. This game-changing aircraft, which will be operated by both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, will call RAF Marham home.  

The station was first opened in 1916 to defend Norfolk from raids by German Zeppelin airships during World War One and has played key roles in World War Two as well as the conflicts with Argentina and in the Middle East. Fast-forward to the present day and RAF Marham is not only host to the Tornado Squadron but is also the new home of the world’s most advanced, fifth-generation aircraft. 

The Lightning, as the aircraft will be known in the UK, will be jointly operated by the RAF and the Royal Navy and can operate from land and sea, forming a vital part of ‘carrier strike’, the use of the aircraft from Britain’s new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers. 

Around £550 million has been invested through the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) at RAF Marham in order to ready the station for the new Lightning fleet. 

DIO’s role in this ambitious redevelopment is to manage a complex series of projects to provide the vital infrastructure necessary to support the arrival and operation of the Lightning II aircraft and its associated equipment and systems. To this end, facilities have been comprehensively refurbished, runways resurfaced and landing pads built to accommodate the aircraft’s ability to land vertically.  

Work on the station began in 2016, with the commencement of enabling works that included the demolition of redundant hardened buildings to allow later works packages to deliver office and technical facilities, aircraft shelters, servicing platforms, training facilities and aircraft operational surfaces. 

In October 2017, the resurfacing of the intersection of the two runways was completed. The construction required a three-week ‘no fly’ period to be agreed with the station, while DIO’s contractors, a joint venture between Galliford Try and Lagan Construction, completed the entire construction of this element of works.  

This phase included removing more than 13,000 tonnes of existing asphalt and installing 23 pits and 1.2km of ducting for aeronautical ground lighting. To resurface the runway, more than 18,000 tonnes of asphalt was laid over an area of nearly 38,000 square metres, equivalent to more than five rugby pitches. To achieve this within the required timescale the contractors worked in multiple shifts, seven days a week. 

February saw Her Majesty the Queen visit RAF Marham in her capacity as Honorary Air Commodore of the Station. Her Majesty was invited to officially open the Lightning Operations Centre with the unveiling of a plaque that had been commissioned by Lockheed Martin. 

The Lightning Operations Centre will be the headquarters of the UK F35 Lightning Force and provide through-life airworthiness management and a global to national interface in support of the Lightning Force. 

Resurfacing work on the secondary runway was completed in June 2018. The 1855m stretch required the construction of two batching plants to prepare the specific asphalt and concrete needed for the new surface. The materials were prepared on-site to increase efficiency.  

No place like home: Lightning progress at RAF Marham

June also witnessed a major milestone as four F-35B Lightning aircraft arrived at their new home at RAF Marham two months ahead of schedule, starting the build-up of the newly reformed 617 Squadron in the UK. 

Welcoming the jets’ arrival, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson commented: “With a game-changing ability to collect crucial intelligence, fight wars and tackle terrorism, these are the most advanced jets in British history. The work that’s gone into their early arrival shows they have the people to match.” 

Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, Chief of the Air Staff, was equally effusive about the historic event: “In the RAF’s centenary year, it’s great to see the most advanced and dynamic fighter jet in our history arrive at RAF Marham – and with the modern Dambusters in the cockpit, this homecoming truly feels like an historic moment in British airpower.”  

The following month saw the F-35 jets use their short take-off vertical landing (STOVL) capability to land on new Vertical Landing Pads (VLPs), at the air base for the first time. 

Construction of the VLPs presented a significant engineering challenge. Due to standard concrete not being suitable, the design team had to source special materials from Germany to make a concrete which has the ability to withstand the high temperatures created by aircraft engines. Without this, there would be a risk of cracking which in turn could present significant risk to the aircraft. This was the first time this material had been used outside the United States and a rigorous testing process was required to ensure the landing pads were fit for purpose. 

Each landing pad measures 67m by 67m, with a central landing area of 30.5m by 30.5m.  

Lt Col Ian Jenkins, Defence Infrastructure Organisation Project Manager for the VLPs, said: “Vertical landing is a really exciting military capability and from an infrastructure perspective it’s been fascinating to be involved in the design and construction process. It was really exciting and rewarding to see an F-35 landing on the first Vertical Landing Pad to be finished.”  

It will come as no surprise that as one of the world’s most advanced multirole combat aircraft the F-35B Lightning commands most of the attention; but the work undertaken through the DIO at RAF Marham will benefit the UK Armed Forces for the next generation and underlines the MOD’s long-term commitment to RAF Marham, the local community and the station’s military capability.