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Phoenix rising: iconic Naval unit re-born as UK’s second front-line F-35 squadron

8 December 2023
From the ashes the torch today passed between generations of pilots, and the UK – and Navy – gained a new front-line fast-jet squadron.

809 Naval Air Squadron joins the RAF’s 617 ‘Dambusters’ as the second, front-line stealth fighter formation, operating the F-35B Lightning.

Nearly 41 years to the day that 809 – known as the Phoenix Squadron, its pilots nicknamed The Immortals – passed into history at RNAS Yeovilton, it was brought back to life in front of scores of friends, family and VIPs at RAF Marham.

The last naval officer to hold the title of 809 Commanding Officer, Commander Tim Gedge, symbolically presented the unit crest – a phoenix rising from the flames – to the pilot in charge of its re-birth, Commander Nick Smith, the emotional high point of an hour-long ceremony and service which concluded with an F-35 flypast over the Norfolk air base.

 “It is an honour and privilege to be afforded the opportunity to command 809 NAS and lead the workup to Full Operational Capability,” Commander Smith said.

“The Squadron has a rich history of Royal Navy and Royal Air Force integration from the days of operating the Blackburn Buccaneer at RAF Lossiemouth in the 1960s and 1970s, 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 fifth-generation combat air capability, deployable from both land and sea.”

The Lightning is two generations ahead of the Sea Harrier Commander Gedge and his colleagues flew in the Falklands in 809’s most recent iteration – although both aircraft are equally at home operating on land or from the decks of Royal Navy aircraft carriers.

And though a naval air squadron, 809 – like 617 Sqn before it – is a national asset, its personnel drawn from both the RAF and Royal Navy, its commanding officer alternating between the two Services.

The mixed 809 ranks were inspected by the two guests of honour, Second Sea Lord Vice Admiral Martin Connell and Air Marshal Harv Smyth, Air and Space Commander, before Chaplain of the Fleet The Venerable Andrew Hillier led the short service of recommissioning.

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.

Air Marshal Smyth

“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,” Admiral Connell said.

Air Marshal Smyth added: “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.

“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.”

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 recommissioning sees the number of UK squadrons operating the Lightning expand to four, two front-line, plus 207 Sqn (Operational Conversion Unit) and 17 Test and Evaluation Sqn.

All are joint RAF and RN ventures, with the commanding officer and senior pilot alternating between the two Services.

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