The new Lightning IIs will replace the unit’s F-15C Eagle air superiority fighters that are being transferred to the Air National Guard.
The first F-35A Lightning II sporting the markings of the 493rd Fighter Squadron of the 48th Fighter Wing based at RAF Lakenheath was spotted for the first time at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Fort Worth, Texas by aviation photographer Gherardo Fontana (@gfontana767). The aircraft, with serial 19-5493/AF-321, will be the unit’s flagship and sports on its tail the “Grim Reaper”, from the 493rd Fighter Squadron’s emblem.
It is not known yet when this aircraft will be delivered to RAF Lakenheath. Since last month, the squadron is ferrying its F-15C/Ds back to the United States, where they will be transferred to Air National Guard units, marking the end of more than 45 years of F-15A/B/C/D Eagle operations in Europe.
Even during this drawdown, the Grim Reapers are still on the frontlines and returned just last week from their last operational deployment. Eight F-15Cs were in fact deployed to Łask Air Base in central Poland for about three weeks to enhance the “NATO’s collective defence posture and support the NATO Air Policing mission,” following the growing tensions that preceded the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The future of the Grim Reapers was mostly kept away from the spotlight, with only few captions from the U.S. Air Force Public Affairs mentioning the imminent replacement of the F-15C with the F-35. It is expected that the 493rd FS will be officially inactivated as the last aircraft depart RAF Lakenheath and then reactivated before the arrival of the first F-35.
The Grim Reapers will become the second Europe-based U.S. F-35 squadron, following their colleagues of the 495th FS “Valkyries”, which received the first F-35s in December 2021. RAF Lakenheath will have this way two F-15E Strike Eagle squadrons, the 492nd FS “Bolars” and the 494th FS “Panthers”, and two F-35A squadrons, the 493rd FS “Grim Reapers” and the 495th FS “Valkyries”.
Here’s what we wrote about the “Valkyries” after the squadron was officially re-activated:
With the introduction of the F-35A, the 495th FS will step the 48th Fighter Wing and USAFE into the 5th generation of air power advancing multi-domain capabilities and air superiority, according to the press release. “The 495th Fighter Squadron represents a huge step in refining interoperability,” said Gen. Jeff Harrigian, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander. “We’ve already started exercising these capabilities with our partners who have F-35s in theatre, so we’ll be ready to get after it when the new aircraft arrive in December.”
As we already reported in the past here at The Aviationist, the F-35s have already deployed to Lakenheath in the recent past. In fact, F-35s deployed multiple times there since 2017 to train in Europe and allow pilots and maintainers to learn more about the European operating environment, as well as improving the interoperability with partners in the region. The presence of the F-35 during these deployments also allowed to test the infrastructure and support before the aircraft is permanently assigned to the British base.
The 495th FS will be joined later by another F-35 squadron, as the DoD said that, with the reorganization of the U.S. Air Force units across Europe, two squadrons with 24 F-35s each would be based at RAF Lakenheath. Lakenheath is the perfect base for the perfect weapon system in the perfect country,” said Col. Robert Novotny, 48th Fighter Wing commander in press release published on the Air Force website back then. The second F-35 has not been identified yet however, according to some sources, the “Grim Reapers” of the 493rd FS might trade their F-15Cs for the F-35, and Lakenheath would become home of two F-35 squadrons and two F-15E squadrons.
Thanks again to @gfontana767 for the photos he sent us and make sure to follow him on Instagram for more!