The Italian Navy aircraft carrier ITS welcomed two F-35B Lighting II jets on its flight deck for the first time on March 1.
The landings were a culmination of a process that began in December 2018, when the ship was docked to receive upgrades that would allow it to operate the fifth-generation short take-off and vertical landing variant of the F-35. The ship undocked in November 2019.
In late January, the carrier got underway from Italy and headed to the US naval base Norfolk from where it will be certified to operate the jets that are being acquired by both the Italian Navy and Air Force.
Test pilots flew the specially instrumented US F-35Bs from Naval Air Station Patuxent River (NAS Pax River), Maryland, to the Italian Navy flagship, which got underway from Norfolk on February 28. The pilots and aircraft joined a test team of approximately 180 personnel from the NAS Pax River-based F-35 Integrated Test Force (ITF) embarked for up to four weeks of sea trials.
“Our team has trained extensively to prepare for this day, and I was honored to land one of the first two jets aboard Cavour,” said F-35B test pilot US Marine Maj. Brad Leeman, the ITF test team project officer.
Maj. Leeman and two other pilots attached to the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Two Three (VX-23) at NAS Pax River, will fly the ITF jets during the flight test.
“The ITF plays a key role in the ship achieving carrier qualification in the near future,” Leeman said. “All of our hard work planning and training will ensure a successful sea trial and ultimately lead to Italy achieving the milestone of initial operating capability.”
“It is a remarkable achievement for all of us, today, to see the fifth-generation fighter aircraft on our flight deck,” said ITS Cavour Commanding Officer Italian Navy Capt. Giancarlo Ciappina. “This represents, indeed, an outstanding success but, at the same time, a new challenge for the future of Italian Naval Aviation.”
“Each and every officer and the whole crew are very proud to work closely with the F-35 Joint Program Office test team during these sea trials, and we are very well prepared to do the hard work to equip ITS Cavour and the Italian Navy with the Joint Strike Fighter’s fifth-generation air combat capability,” Ciappina said.
With the pilots and jets on board, the test team will now collect data that will ultimately lead to the ship’s officers’ and crew’s ability to safely conduct carrier operations with Italy’s own F-35s.
The Italian Navy expects Cavour to reach initial operational capability with the F-35B in 2024. F-35B is replacing the AV-8B Harrier II STOVL aircraft which have been in service with the Italian Navy since the 1990s.