F-35B to replace the RAF’s Harrier jump jet

It was the most advanced fighter jet, capable of vertical takeoff and landing, and a triumph of British engineering. But that was then. Today, 40 years after the Harrier jump jet first came into service, the last of the planes are about to be phased out.

The pin-up of aircraft enthusiasts and the hero of the Falklands war will be a hard act to follow. So what is riding the Harrier’s slipstream?

The answer is the F-35B, built by the American aerospace giant Lockheed-Martin. This new fighter-bomber can take off from just a few yards of runway and land vertically, thanks to a huge fan providing 20,000lb of thrust, which enables the plane to hover before touching down. The maker emphasises that the similarities to the Harrier are limited: the F-35 series is different in every other respect, and is equipped with 21st-century technology that will make it one of the most effective planes in the skies.

This point was rammed home last week when the US government killed off the F-35’s big brother, the F-22 Raptor. Production of this super-fighter, it said, will be capped at just 187, allowing more funds to be diverted to the 3,000 F-35s it is planning to build. Of these, Britain will buy 138, and the first three are expected to be delivered late next year. The F-35 uses an upgraded version of the Pratt & Whitney jet engines in the F-22. With a maximum thrust output of 40,000lb, this is the most powerful jet fighter engine yet built. The F-35 also uses similar radar-evading stealth techniques to the F-22, eliminating sharp angles on the airframe wherever possible. Its radar signature is said to be comparable to that of a steel golf ball.

The RAF will be using a modified variant called the F-35B, armed with Sidewinder missiles and combining the manoeuvrability of a Harrier with a top speed of 1,200mph — almost twice as fast as its predecessor. It also carries air-to-ground cruise missiles and up to 12,000lb of “dumb” bombs. This, says the Ministry of Defence, will allow it to play vital roles in air defence as well as the sort of low-tech ground conflict in which both the US and the UK are currently embroiled.

The F-35B is a more powerful workhorse than the AV-8B Harrier it replaces, able to carry twice the payload for nearly twice the distance. Arguably, though, it is the electronics that move on the furthest from its 40-year-old predecessor. As well as using the traditional stick and throttle, pilots will fly the aircraft through a combination of voice commands and touchscreen controls. Flight data will be displayed in 3-D inside the pilot’s helmet, and on-board software will diagnose mechanical problems and assess battle damage, then radio instructions ahead to ground crews. Each plane will effectively have its own R2-D2 robot to look after it.

Like the existing Harrier joint force, the F-35B will be flown by both RAF and Fleet Air Arm (Royal Navy) pilots based on aircraft carriers. Up to 36 aircraft will be deployed on each of the two Queen Elizabeth-class ships currently being built at a cost of nearly £2 billion each. The first of the 64,000-ton vessels should enter service in 2014.

Few RAF pilots have flown the new plane in anger, but British Top Gun instructors have been preparing for its arrival with simulators. Squadron Leader Ed Thomas, an instructor with the RAF’s 208 Squadron, based in Anglesey, described the F-35B as an outstanding aircraft and said it was easier to fly than the Harrier. “It’s an excellent piece of kit,” he said. “It’s cutting edge, future-proof and better than anything else in contention.”

Those who have flown the planes have so far approved. Lieutenant-Colonel James “Flipper” Kromberg, a USAF pilot, flew the first of the F-35s in January 2008. At the end of his first day’s flying, he said: “I’ve been smiling since arriving this morning, and haven’t stopped yet.”

The UK has been promised full control over its aircraft, weapons and operating systems — unlike, say, Trident nuclear missiles, which rely heavily on its American manufacturer’s software and personnel, even when they are fitted into Royal Navy submarines.

The F-35 programme involves nine nations but the UK is Lockheed’s lead partner, and British manufacturers such as BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce will provide feedback into the B variant’s development. Sadly, Britain doesn’t appear to be getting the planes at a discount: the three evaluation aircraft ordered by John Hutton, the defence secretary, last month came with a combined estimated price tag of £180m.