AKROTIRI, Cyprus (AP) - Six F-35B Lightning warplanes, the UK's newest fighter, arrived Tuesday at a British air base on Cyprus for training and a systems test in the aircraft's first overseas deployment.
The jets from 617 Squadron, flown by three British Royal Navy and three Royal Air Force pilots, touched down at RAF Akrotiri for what officials said will be a six-week deployment on the eastern Mediterranean island nation as part of Exercise Lightning Dawn.
The fighters left RAF Marham Station in two waves of three aircraft, with each wave supported by an Airbus A330 MRRT Voyager that refueled them several times during the journey.
"It's just over 76 years since 617 Squadron formed to conduct ground-breaking operations. They are once again called upon to take a capability forwards for the first time," said Group Capt. Townsend, commander of RAF Marham Station.
"The exercise in Akrotiri will prove our ability to operate F35 away from RAF Marham and allow us to learn the lessons of operating the air system whilst on deployment," Townsend said.
Group Capt. Christopher Snaith, RAF Akrotiri Station commander, said the deployment will let pilots put the planes through their paces, test logistics and sharpen ground crew training.
"This is the first overseas training deployment of the aircraft and marks another key milestone for the aircraft in UK service," Snaith said.
Snaith said the training aims to prepare the aircraft for its first deployment aboard the UK's new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, and to develop its strike capability.
There are no current plans to have the aircraft conduct combat missions, said Snaith.
Flight training will take place over waters south of Cyprus and won't involve any weapons.
Snaith said RAF Akrotiri was selected for training because it's far away enough from the UK to "stretch logistics," but familiar enough to UK pilots, some of whom have flown out of the air base before.
The UK is a partner in the US-led F-35 program, providing 15% of the value of each of the 3,000 jets on order around the world, the Ministry of Defense said in a release.
The UK currently has 17 F-35Bs, which arrived last year to reform 617 Squadron. The overall plan is to acquire 138 of the aircraft over the life of the program.