The arrival of the next generation in fighter jets secures Williamtown as “the key” air force facility on the eastern seaboard, said Minister of Defence Christopher Pyne at a ceremony held on Monday to welcome the first F-35A fighter jets to Australia.
Mr Pyne said the two planes, worth $124 million each, represented the nation’s largest and “most lethal” acquisition for its air force to date.
“When the first-in-class of something as significant as the largest purchase in our air force history lands in Australia for the first time, that’s seriously a historic day,” he said.
Chief of air force Gavin “Leo” Davies said the F-35 project made Williamtown the “home of fighters”.
Apart from the two jets, a purpose-built $1 billion “precinct” was unveiled at the base.
“The F-35 not only has brought the infrastructure we are standing around, it also brings a new way of flying,” Mr Davies said.
“When young men and women are looking for future careers in the air force, they will see that we have the F-35 base here at Williamtown and they’ll want to be part of it.”
He thanked the personnel of the base’s No.3 Squadron, who have been testing the aircraft in the US since 2014.
“There have been some tough times, and there have been some folk who have really rubbished this aircraft.”
He said the squadron had spent thousands of hours flying the plane.
“I think it has truly demonstrated what the potential is.”
Mr Pyne said the jet’s analysis and communication capabilities set it apart from previous military acquisitions as “arguably the most lethal”.
“It changes the way we perceive of a battle field,” he said. “It connects all the different platforms on the battlefield together, whether they are on the sea, on the land, or in the air, to determine the best way and the best most effective means of taking out an opponent.”
Wing commander Darren Clare, the head of No.3 Squadron, described the jet as a “computer pretending to be an aeroplane”.
“It’s easy to fly, almost too easy to fly. It gets above supersonic [speed] relatively easily,” he said.
Australia has committed $17 billion to buying 72 F-35s, which will be split between three operational squadrons at Williamtown and Tindal, in the Northern Territory, as well as an additional training squadron at Williamtown.
The base is expected to house 30 of the jets by the end of 2020.
Optimism surrounding the planes’ impact on the region cut across party lines, with federal member for Paterson Meryl Swanson saying the benefits to her electorate transcended “political argybargy”.
State MP Kate Washington said the project was a “win” for Port Stephens.
“We’ve always been very proud of the RAAF base and what it offers our area and our nation. Yes, it’s come with complications lately,” she said.
“I think this is the beginning of an enormous injection into the economy of our area.”
Hundreds of spectators were just glad for the opportunity to see a new kind of aircraft come to town.
Brothers Phillip and Max Malson, of Lake Munmorah, woke up at 5.30 am to secure a park outside the base.
“We went down to the Avalon Airshow last year and ever since then we’ve been dedicated to just seeing jets,” Phillip Malson said.