US F-35B Fighter Jets Are Operating on an Italian Aircraft Carrier for At-Sea Tests

Test pilots land  two F-35B variants aboard an Italian navy ship near the U.S. coast.
Test pilots from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23, Marine Corps Maj. Brad “HJOP” Leeman and Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. Barry “Baz” Pilkington, fly two F-35B variants from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland on March 1, 2021, to the Italian aircraft carrier ITS Cavour (CVH 550) off the U.S. coast. The vertical landings conducted by the two pilots marked the first landing of an F-35 aboard ITS Cavour. Italian Navy personnel and the F-35 Pax River Integrated Test Force test team are underway in the Atlantic to conduct F-35B sea trials aboard ITS Cavour over a multi-week testing period. The sea trials are a key milestone toward Italy’s carrier qualifications with its own F‐35Bs. (Kyra Helwick/U.S. Navy)

As Marines prepare to deploy aboard a British aircraft carrier, F-35B Joint Strike Fighter jets are conducting sea trials on another European ally's ship.

About 180 personnel from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, are spending four weeks aboard the Italian aircraft carrier Cavour for sea trials. Pilots from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 are operating F-35Bs from the Italian navy's flagship to prove the carrier is ready to operate the Lighting II aircraft.

"Supporting our Italian allies in certification of their aircraft carrier increases our collective experience in safety and combat abilities," Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, commander of U.S. 2nd Fleet, said in a statement when the ship arrived in Virginia. "We are stronger together."

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The ship is sailing in the western Atlantic during the trials. The test pilots are operating the short takeoff and vertical-landing variant of the F-35 as the Italian navy prepares to operate its future F-35B aircraft at sea.

"It is a remarkable achievement for all of us today to see the fifth-generation fighter aircraft on our flight deck," Italian Capt. Giancarlo Ciappina, Cavour's commanding officer, said in a news release about the trials. "This represents, indeed, an outstanding success but -- at the same time -- a new challenge for the future of Italian naval aviation."

A F-35 test pilot prepares to launch for an evaluation flight aboard ITS Cavour.
F-35 test pilot U.S. Marine Maj. Brad Leeman prepares to launch for a night lighting evaluation flight in an F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the jet aboard Italian aircraft carrier ITS Cavour (CVH 550). The Air and Test Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 pilot is embarked with the F-35 Patuxent River Integrated Test Force (ITF) for sea trials on the Italian Navy flagship. Cavour is in phase one of its "Ready for Operations" campaign to certify its use of the fifth-generation fighter aircraft. (Dane Wiedmann/U.S. Navy)

Italy plans to buy 30 F-35Bs to be split between its navy and air force, Defense News reported in October. The country's navy wants to swap its aging AV-8 jets on the carrier with F-35Bs, according to the outlet, while the air force plans to use the aircraft for expeditionary missions where it can operate from short runways.

The navy so far has received two F-35Bs, and Italian crews are training with them at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina, according to The Drive.

The United Kingdom's aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth conducted similar tests with Marine F-35B fighters in 2018. In January, defense officials from the U.S. and U.K. signed an agreement to deploy ships and fighter aircraft from both countries in the form of a combined carrier strike group.

Marine F-35B aircraft and the U.S. Navy destroyer The Sullivans will participate in that deployment this year.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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