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End of an era as the Navy’s first F-35 pilot retires

End of an era as the Navy’s first F-35 pilot retires
3 January 2023
Fleet Air Arm legend Commander Ian Tidball has flown his final flight for the Royal Navy.

His 32-year career as a pilot has seen him spend 4,111 hours – more than 171 days – in the skies in 35 different types of aircraft.

But it’s his work with the F-35 programme for which ‘Tidders’ is best known and it was appropriate that his last flight was in the Lightning as he made the short hop from MCAS Miramar to Edwards Air Force Base in California.

He was welcomed back by colleagues from 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron, as well as personnel from the US Navy’s VX-9 squadron, his family – and a couple of fire extinguishers.

“Never let anyone tell you can’t achieve something until you have exhausted every avenue,” said Cdr Tidball. “I was told at 16 I would never be a pilot; I think I proved that wrong.”

From Somerset, Cdr Tidball joined the Royal Navy in 1991 and earned his Wings – the coveted emblem of a qualified pilot – on helicopters, spending the early days of his career flying Commando ‘Junglie’ Sea Kings.

After completing more than 1,000 hours as a helicopter pilot, he made the move to fast jets, starting with the Sea Harrier.

Holding positions such as XO, Operations Officer, and Air Warfare Instructor whilst on 800, 801, and 899 NAS, he also had the unique experience of deploying on all three of the UK carriers in service at the time (HMS Invincible, Illustrious and Ark Royal). 

He said his time on the Sea Harrier was a particular highpoint: “I enjoyed the huge camaraderie in the Sea Harrier force and flying off the carrier around the world was amazing.”

After notching up more than 1,300 hours on the Harrier, Cdr Tidball moved to the USA and flew FA-18s with the US Navy’s VX-9. 

During his time with the “Vampires” he executed flight tests across the full array of FA-18 warfighter effectiveness capabilities and fulfilled his Topgun-inspired childhood dream of achieving day and night carrier qualifications in the Super Hornet.

Remaining in the US, he began his pioneering time on the F-35 program as the UK Deputy Lead National Representative within the US led F-35 Operational Test Team in 2011 – 2012.

He then became an Instructor Pilot with the US Marines at VMFAT-501, based at Eglin in Florida as the first Royal Navy pilot on the jet.

“The Marines enthusiasm and can-do attitude and professionalism never failed to impress me; I hope we continue to work with them closely,” he said.

The pinnacle of his career came in 2014 to 2018 when he was chosen to command 17 TES at Edwards, following a turn as XO.

This period saw him lead the initial Operational Testing (OT) of the F-35B for the UK as the first UK F-35 squadron. 

He became the first UK pilot to deploy with the USMC onboard USS America for OT, and the first UK pilot to qualify as an F-35 LSO. 

Rounding off his career and staying with the F-35 program at Edwards AFB, he led the UK F-35 Integrated Test Team and was the Senior Operator F-35 Test & Evaluation (T&E).

This saw him as the lead T&E supervisor of the first embarked UK F-35 Operational Test (OT-1) aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth. 

Flying regularly with 17 TES as the Senior UK F-35 Test Pilot and LSO, Tidders completed more than 550 hours in a real F-35 and over 500 hours on simulated sorties before his final flight back from MCAS Miramar. 

 “I will miss working with the immensely professional friends I have made but when I look back on all the amazing things I have been able to do, I’m comfortable that I’ve now been there and done it and am really looking forward to my next flying adventure and getting to spend more quality time with my family,” he added.

Cdr Tidball may be leaving the Royal Navy and the military as a whole, however he will remain flying – this time at the controls of multi-engine transport aircraft for parcel firm UPS.

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