Five Weeks Out, Few Details in Place for F-35’s Paris Debut


By Lara Seligman

Five weeks out from the Paris Air Show, the U.S. Air Force still doesn’t know which F-35A units will go, how many aircraft will make the trip, or what exactly the planes will do when they get there.  

The Air Force is still “in the planning stages” for the F-35’s debut appearance at Europe’s largest aerospace showcase, held every other year at Le Bourget Airport, according to spokeswoman Ann Stefanek. She could not confirm whether the F-35 will participate in a flying display, or if the aircraft will be featured in the static park.

The F-35’s upcoming appearance at Paris will be a momentous occasion, marking the first time a stealth aircraft has appeared at the show since Northrop Grumman’s B-2 bomber paid a brief visit in 1995. No stealth aircraft has appeared on static display at the show since the F-117 in 1991. 

Lockheed’s F-22 was scheduled to participate in 2009, but Air Force cancelled the appearance, saying the aircraft was tied up elsewhere. At the time, news outlets reported there might have been concerns over whether the stealth plane would be exposed to radar trying to gather intelligence on U.S. technology.

This year, organizers have emphasized that they are beefing up security measures at the Paris Air Show, which runs from June 19 to June 25, following a series of terror attacks in France over the last 24 months. Tougher security checks will be in place, and more than 1,000 private and state security personnel, including soldiers and police, will protect the event during the show week, Aviation Week recently reported.

But which units will make the trip across the pond? The Air Force has F-35s stationed at five bases around the country that could potentially participate. Last year, pilots from the Air Force’s heritage team from Luke AFB, Arizona, performed at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) in the UK in 2016. However, as of May 11, the Paris Air Show was not on that unit’s public flight schedule.

The Air Force’s 34th Fighter squadron, the service’s first operational F-35 squadron, or the Air Force Reserve’s 466th Fighter squadron, both based at Hill AFB, Utah, seems like the logical choice to make the trip to Le Bourget. Eight jets from these squadrons actually just returned home from Europe, after spending several weeks training with NATO allies in the region.

The Air Force also has several test and training squadrons across the country that could go to Paris. These include:

  • The 461st Flight Test Squadron at Edwards AFB, California
  • The 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron at Edwards AFB, California
  • The 58th Fighter Squadron, a training squadron at Eglin AFB, Florida
  • The 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada
  • The 56th Fighter Wing at Luke AFB, Arizona, home to three F-35A training squadrons

Another unanswered question is: what is the cost to taxpayers of sending the F-35A to the Paris Air Show? It’s hard to say for sure without knowing how many jets will go and what events they will support. But we do know that the total cost for the F-35As to participate in RIAT was $2.5 million, including $1.5 million paid by Lockheed Martin, according to Stefanek. That includes temporary duty costs for all necessary maintenance and operations personnel, as well as the flying hours for two F-35As, a C-17 that transported the crews to and from RIAT, and two KC-135s that refueled the aircraft in flight. The cost of the Paris trip will likely be along those same lines.

Stefanek highlighted the importance of participating in international events such as the Paris Air Show.

“Participation in international events highlight our commitment to regional security and fosters interoperability between our Allies and partners as we face evolving security threats around the world,” she said.

The Air Force’s sudden decision to participate in the Paris Air Show stands in contrast to the Joint Strike Fighter’s long-anticipated appearance at RIAT and the Farnborough International Air Show in the UK in 2016. Department of Defense (DOD) officials confirmed to reporters a full six months in advance, in January 2016, that the F-35 would participate in those shows. At that point, the Air Force and U.S. Marine Corps already had plans in place for which jets would go and the events they would participate in. 

But until May 6, the Pentagon appeared to have no plans to send the stealth fighter to Le Bourget. In fact, multiple DOD officials told Aviation Week and other news outlets in late April that the F-35 would not make an appearance at the show. Some even said the aircraft had not been invited, which turned out to be incorrect: Vincent Gorry, international director of the French Aerospace Industries Association and the Paris Air Show, talked with Aviation Week in March when he visited the U.S. to speak to officials about the F-35’s potential presence at the show.

Still, the Air Force maintains that the move is not a reversal.

"The F-35A strengthens partnerships and improves regional stability," said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, according to the May 6 announcement. "We welcome the opportunity to further demonstrate the revolutionary capabilities of this aircraft."

The Marine Corps F-35Bs will not participate in the Paris Air Show, as Aviation Week first reported April 26. However, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant of aviation, will attend the show to represent the Marine Corps, according to spokeswoman Capt. Sarah Burns.


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