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United Kingdom, Australia open F-35 lab at Eglin Air Force Base

Three F-35C Lightning II aircraft attached to the “Argonauts” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147, the "Rough Raiders" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 125 and the "Grim Reapers" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 101, all attached to Commander, Joint Strike Fighter Wing, complete a flight over Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Feb. 1, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon E. Renfroe)

Representatives of the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force held a ribbon-cutting Monday for a laboratory on Eglin Air Force Base that optimizes the performance of their F-35 stealth fighter jets.

The Australia Canada United Kingdom Reprogramming Laboratory (ACURL), like the United States Reprogramming Laboratory immediately next door, and the nearby Norway Italy Reprogramming Laboratory, will be involved in the ongoing development of “mission data files” for the F-35.

Since the partnership was formed, Canada has backed away from purchasing the F-35, but the laboratory will retain that country’s name. According to media reports, and information from Monday’s ribbon-cutting, there are indications Canada may wind up acquiring the F-35, and becoming part of the laboratory.

Briefly, the mission data files assist the F-35’s massive array of optical, electromagnetic and other sensors in identifying threats. That gives pilots the ability “to (execute) the mission with the jet doing a lot of the work,” according Royal Australian Air Force Wing Commander Joseph Bennett, ACURL’s commanding officer for engineering.

Because threats will be evolving during the F-35’s service life, the ACURL, along with the two other reprogramming laboratories, will be long-term fixtures on Eglin AFB as data files are updated.

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“We’ve got at least a 40-year footprint,” at the base, Bennett said.

The ACURL comprises more than 100 Royal Navy, Royal Australian Air Force, Royal Air Force, Lockheed Martin and other contractor and civilian personnel. Many of those personnel lined the walkways leading to the ACURL on Monday morning as the national anthems of the two nations were played and their flags unfurled in the morning breeze.

Among those on hand for Monday’s ribbon-cutting was Royal Air Force Wing Commander Gerry McCormack, who has overall command of the ACURL.

“We’re really keen that we work alongside our Australian colleagues,” he said. That collaboration, with the U.S. reprogramming laboratory also in the mix, “makes us all stronger,” McCormack said.

“It’s always been a priority that we are all one team,” he said. “I know it sounds corny, but our diversity is our strength.”

The ACURL actually has been on Eglin for more than six years. It operated initially in an office at the 33rd Fighter Wing before moving into an existing structure on the base. The ACURL began occupying its current building in 2018.

Monday’s ribbon-cutting was a recognition of the lab reaching “initial operating capacity,” having proven its ability to deliver mission data files.

Speaking with regard to the wider community, McCormack said he has been “majorly impressed” at how the dozens of families associated with ACURL personnel have been integrated into local life. At one point, McCormack said, he stopped by Bluewater Elementary School to thank the principal for integrating the lab personnel’s children into the school.

Beyond the collaboration among the F-25 reprogramming labs at Eglin, ACURL personnel maintain close touch with the pilots actually using the mission data files. said both McCormack and Bennett.

Australian pilots are “seeing what they need to see.” Bennett said, while McCormack noted that while mission data files aren’t yet perfect, “we’re improving rapidly.”

That’s no small feat, Bennett said, when considering that, two years ago, the team being assembled had little or no experience with the F-35.

There was, McCormack noted, “a huge learning curve.”

Now, McCormack is looking toward an expansion of the ACURL, already a $200 million facility, with a second phase of the facility and its work, slated to begin in July of this year.

Among the personnel now at the ACURL is Nicholas Millar, a leading aircrewman with the Royal Australian Air Force.

“We’re still learning,” Millar said, and “constantly facing challenges.” Still, he said, it is “an amazing experience to be part of the fifth-generation air force.”

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© 2020 the Northwest Florida Daily News