By Joe Lord-Jones and Robert Moore: ITV News
In the middle of a South Carolina swamp, a select group of RAF and Royal Navy pilots are undergoing training in the next generation of fighter jets.
Swatting away the midges and fire ants at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, the British embeds are being put through their paces in the new F35 Lighting II operational training programme.
Promising to propel the RAF and Royal Navy into the 21st century, the F35 is "the world’s most advanced 5th generation multi-role fighter, bringing together stealth, agility and advanced technologies to provide the pilot with unprecedented situational awareness and unmatched lethality and survivability."
That's according to Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor.
It certainly looks the part and the jet's development has already cost $1 trillion, which is partly funded by the UK.
It is expected that Britain will buy 138 of these jets at a cost of £100 million each. A maximum of 48 aircraft will be based on Britain's two new aircraft carriers, the Queen Elizabeth ll and the Prince of Wales, by 2023.
138 might seem like a lot, given the exorbitant price tag. But compare that to the 3,000 the Americans will have, and you get some sense of why the US will remain the dominant military superpower for the foreseeable future.
But the cost is not the F35's only controversy. The project is also eight years behind schedule after being beset by a host of technical problems:
- An ejector seat that risked serious neck injury and even death if the pilot weighed under 165 pounds (just under 12 stone or 75 kilos);
- Software problems that flow from a machine of astonishing complexity. The plane has 8 million lines of software code.
- A $400,000 (£280,000) helmet (yes, that's the price per helmet) that has been criticised as too big for the size of the cockpit;
- Radar is, within the last 48 hours, encountering problems requiring the pilot to turn it off and on again.
But all that money gets you some pretty impressive features. The plane has vertical landing capability, making it the perfect option for aircraft carrier operation. It's so high-tech that instead of gauges and switches, almost the entire cockpit is a giant touch-screen.
This is why RAF Squadron Leader Hugh Nichols believes that many kids glued to their games consoles could be well-placed to be the pilots of the future.
"The 16 or 17 year old kid sitting on their sofa playing PlayStation nowadays...those guys I think are going to be very good at this (flying the F35) because they have that mentality and that ability to process large amounts of information."
By 2018, the F35s will form a new squadron based at RAF Marham in Norfolk. It will be given a special honour - inheriting the name of the 617 'Dambuster' Squadron, famed for its exploits in World War Two.
So Britain is readying itself for a quantum leap in its air power capability. It comes at an extraordinary price, but the RAF and Royal Navy pilots who fly the stealth planes say it's the best fighter-jet in the skies.