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What a difference a year makes at RAF Lakenheath

Members of the project team and RAF Lakenheath personnel at the groundbreaking ceremony in July 2019. [Crown Copyright / MOD 2019]
In July 2019 we held a ground-breaking ceremony to mark the start of construction at RAF Lakenheath and the next phase of the hugely important F-35 programme. With any major construction project there are always challenges to identify and overcome but few could have predicted the scale of the challenges facing all of us, across the globe, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic – but we’ll get to that.

A Kier VolkerFitzpatrick joint venture, known as KVF35, was awarded the DIO contract to build a flight simulator facility, maintenance unit, new hangars, storage facilities and supporting infrastructure at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk at the end of 2018. The base will become the first permanent international site for US Air Force F-35As in Europe. Construction began in July 2019 to prepare the airbase for the arrival of two new squadrons of the aircraft from November 2021. Months of detailed planning followed and on July 15th 2019, 48th Fighter Wing and DIO held a ground-breaking ceremony at the airbase alongside the Air Force Installation & Mission Support Center and KVF35 to officially mark the start of construction.

A large digger behind a fence, with a pile of rubble and a remaining semi-circular concrete wall which still stands.
Work has included demolition of some existing buildings and facilities as well as construction of new ones. [Crown Copyright / MOD 2019]
What we’ve achieved so far is outstanding and a real testament to the hard work and collaboration of our team, both on site and in the project management offices. The construction work has significantly progressed and it’s rewarding to see the buildings take shape as we move methodically from demolition and groundworks to steel frames, blockwork and roofing!

As well as the buildings themselves, there are vast amounts of infrastructure to complete which are absolutely vital to the programme. We were pleased to conclude the installation of a new UK Power Networks high voltage substation on the base ahead of schedule and we’re continuing to work on the installation of new drainage systems, fire hydrants and the diversion of existing services to accommodate the new facilities. We’ve installed a new temporary concrete production plant resulting in a 39% reduction in lorry traffic to and from RAF Lakenheath as the concrete can be produced on site, instead of being brought in by mixer lorry. We’ve also crushed and recycled 20,000 tonnes of concrete and hard-standing to be re-used on the programme.

The F-35 programme is having a positive impact on the local community too with around a quarter of the investment being spent with local small to medium sized enterprises.  So far, 15 apprentices have been taken on by KVF35 and over 50 new jobs created.

Looking ahead and the impact of Covid-19

F-35 is critical to the security and stability of the UK, Europe and the wider region and the F-35 programme at RAF Lakenheath is classed as Defence Critical. It is also why during the Covid-19 pandemic, staff working on the programme can continue to do their jobs as key workers.

The health and safety of team is paramount and we have been very proactive in our approach to safeguarding both the on-site and office-based team, observing social distancing, increasing hand sanitiser and updating risk assessments among other steps. There is daily communication with the team to provide support and advice on how to work safely on site and effectively at home.

Working closely with the US Air Force and coordinating our approach to Covid-19 with our partners and contractors as one team has enabled us to keep construction happening while maintaining health and safety, resulting in over 642,00 hours being worked without a reportable incident.

The past 12 months have been both challenging and rewarding but the resilience, collaboration and professionalism of our partners and contractors during uncertain times has been remarkable and I’m very encouraged by the progress we’ve made so far and our ability to cope with a crisis like Covid-19.

The first F-35A aircraft will arrive at RAF Lakenheath in November next year and while there is still a lot to do, I’m enormously excited about seeing the aircraft on base and their crews taking control the facilities we’ve worked so hard to construct.

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