809 Naval Air Squadron Returns As UK’s Second Frontline F-35B Squadron

809 Sqn
The F-35B ZM151 with the modex 809 and the 809 Naval Air Squadron’s emblem on the tail. (Photo: Royal Navy)

The Fleet Air Arm unit will be jointly operated by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, similarly to the other frontline unit, the 617 Dambusters Squadron.

The Royal Navy’s 809 Naval Air Squadron has been reactivated as the United Kingdom’s second frontline F-35B Lightning squadron on Dec. 8, 2023, almost 41 years after it was decommissioned. The Fleet Air Arm unit, formerly operating the Sea Harrier and also known as the “Immortals”, was stood up during a ceremony at RAF Marham, home of the “Lightning Force”.

Of the more than 100 historic Fleet Air Arm units whose numbers are currently dormant, 809 was selected more than a decade ago as a F-35 Lightning formation, largely due to its illustrious history as a strike and attack squadron having received battle honours from operations in the Arctic, Mediterranean, Burma, Suez and South Atlantic over a 41-year period. The unit will now join the other frontline squadron, 617 Dambusters Squadron, the Operational Conversion Unit, 207 Squadron, and 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron.

“809 Naval Air Squadron has a proud heritage and it is therefore entirely fitting that our nation’s most capable F-35 combat air force now has a second RN/RAF front line squadron which carries the ‘Immortals’ name into this modern era as we continue to expand our global carrier strike capability,” said Vice Admiral Martin Connell, Second Sea Lord.

As for the other British F-35B units, aircraft, personnel, equipment and support infrastructure, which have long been dubbed “Lightning Force”, will be jointly manned by Royal Air Force and Royal Navy personnel. The press release further mentions that the commanding officer and senior pilot will also alternate between the two Services.

“On behalf of the RAF and our Combat Air Force, it is simply superb to see 809 Squadron stand-up, continuing our endeavours to grow the Lightning Force,” said Air Marshal Harvey Smyth, Air & Space Commander. “I know from my time on Joint Force Harrier and multiple tours in the Lightning enterprise, that when the RAF and RN operate together, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And when equipped with Lightning, it makes for an unbeatable combination for the Combat Air Force, capable of delivering next generation air power from land and sea.”

For the ceremony, an F-35B, ZM151, was applied the modex 809 and a tail art with the phoenix rising from the flames, the 809 NAS’ emblem. The latter, however, appears to be only temporarily applied as the aircraft will not fly routinely with squadron markings.

“It is an honour and privilege to be afforded the opportunity to command 809 NAS and lead the workup to Full Operational Capability,” said Commander Nick Smith, new Commanding Officer 809 NAS. “The Squadron has a rich history of Royal Navy / Royal Air Force integration from the days of operating the Blackburn Buccaneer at RAF Lossiemouth in the 1960’s and 1970’s, to the Falklands Conflict in 1982 and this is set to endure well into the future. The latest re-incarnation of ‘Phoenix Squadron’ will see this joint service approach deliver a world-leading 5th Generation combat air capability, deployable from both land and sea.”

Commander Smith symbolically received the unit’s crest from the last naval officer to hold the title of 809 Commanding Officer, Commander Tim Gedge. Commander Gedge was, in fact, the CO when the unit, then flying the Sea Harrier FRS1, was briefly reactivated in 1982 during the Falklands War as the third frontline Sea Harrier squadron before being disbanded again on Dec.17, 1982.

About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.