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Published: 23 Nov 2019

BUDDING F-35 Lightning naval pilot Lieutenant Lewis Phillips became the first trainee fast jet flier to ‘go solo’ in the UK’s new trainer – just a month after it entered service.

The junior officer took to Anglesey skies in the Texan T1 on his own – one important milestone on the road to sitting in the cockpit of an F-35 waiting to launch from HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Lewis had already learned the fundamentals of flight with the Fleet Air Arm at Barkston Heath airfield in Lincolnshire – all pilots, be they fast jet or helicopter, plus observers must pass elementary training.

From there trainees disperse: Wildcat and Merlin pilots to RAF Shawbury, observers to 750 Naval Air Squadron and potential fast jet fliers to RAF Valley in Anglesey, since October under 72 Squadron equipped with the Texan.

The Texan T1 has replaced the (very similar looking) Tucano which has served fast jet pilots well for the past 30 years.

With the increasing computerisation of all military aircraft – Royal Navy Wildcats and Merlins both have fully digitised cockpits – and especially the F-35 Lightning, the first fifth-generation fighter to operate from Royal Navy carrier flight decks, the Tucano was seen as obsolescent.

Its replacement has a fully digitised (aka ‘glass’) cockpit, reaches top speeds of more than 360mph and can climb as high as 31,000ft.

All of which means students must get used to wearing G-suits to counter the effects of gravity on the strains and stresses of flight, an immersion suit in case the Texan has to ditch, wearing an oxygen mask rather than breathing normally.

“It certainly wasn’t lost on me that I was the first UK student to fly the RAF’s newest aircraft solo although this naturally culminated in some nerves before the flight,” said Lewis.

“But when you kit up and crew in, your mind switches to the task at hand and the sortie was an incredibly enjoyable and rewarding one.”

Trainees spend hours in the simulator – ‘synthetic training’ – to prepare for each flight, ensuring that valuable time in the skies isn’t spent learning checks, allowing students to concentrate on developing their airmanship skills.

“My first time at RAF Valley and the Isle of Anglesey was day one of starting the Texan course,” said Lewis who is training with a mix of Royal Navy and air force aviators.

“We were incredibly well received on the station and we have made an effort to explore the local area when the weather has allowed!”

Going solo is far from the end of training with 72 Sqn – there are tests and assessments almost daily building up to aerobatics and ‘max performance manoeuvres’, pushing machine and pilot to the limit.

After successfully completing basic flying training with 72, pilots receive their wings, then progress to jets, first the Hawk T2, also taught at Valley, then the F-35 for naval aviators, F-35s and Typhoons for RAF fliers.


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