The Queen has toured a training facility for the UK’s F-35B Lightning stealth fighter jets at an RAF base a short drive from her Sandringham Estate.
The monarch, who is Honorary Air Commodore of RAF Marham in Norfolk, saw the multi-million pound warplane up close for the first time as she was driven onto the airfield to watch a vertical landing.
She arrived at the airbase in a maroon Bentley on her first public appearance of the year.
Wearing a peaches and cream coloured Angela Kelly coat and hat, she stepped from the car onto a red carpet as a guard of honour welcomed her to the F-35 Lightning Integrated Training Centre.
She spoke to service personnel from across the base as she toured the training centre where artificial intelligence is used to teach people who operate and maintain the aircraft, up to and including pilots.
Afterwards she was driven to a taxiway on the airfield where she watched a £100m F-35B land vertically.
Group Captain James Beck, RAF Marham’s station commander, said it was “exciting” for the Queen to watch the landing.
“She’ll have seen Tornadoes coming past at just under the speed of sound, but she won’t have seen a jet doing no miles an hour come down,” he said.
“It’s the really clever part of a jet and it’s the bit we make in this country, which is the lift fan, the clutch and all of those parts.”
He added: “The buzz around the station today has been utterly incredible.
“Morale is soaring high and everyone is just desperate to just get a glimpse of her.”
He said that 50 of the “most deserving people” of all ranks were invited to a private lunch with the Queen afterwards.
A training officer, who the base is not naming for security reasons, said: “She was quite interested in the training devices, I think as historically we normally trained on actual live aircraft so this is quite new.”
He said the £6 million training devices are cheaper and easier to fix than the £100m jets, and added that the Queen was “particularly interested” in a story about how one training device was “pranged” in its first week of use.
A mechanical loader, used to move a missile into position, bashed into the training device.
“That just shows how valuable it is as a training device, because it’s a training device you just put a bit of paint on it because it’s made of different materials,” said the officer.
“If that was a jet that would have been a significant issue.
“She laughed, she obviously found it quite amusing.
“I think she was really interested in general how training has evolved.”
The UK owns 18 F-35B Lightning jets, with 15 at RAF Marham and three in the US.
Group Capt Beck said that in the first five years of the Lightning programme, the UK flew to America to train and put 450 people through the programme.
“In the first nine months of this centre being open we’ve put another 450 through,” he said.
“We’re halving the time the Americans are training.
“This is the jewel in the crown really for Lightning, this centre here, and all partner nations are looking at why we’re doing it so successfully.”