First British F-35B Lightning stealth fighter jets landed on Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth off the eastern coast of the U.S. on Oct. 13.
The two UK F-35Bs were piloted by Wing Cdr. Adam Curd of Royal Air Force (RAF) and Lt. Cdr. Matt Fooks-Bale of Royal Navy. The jets belonged to RAF’s 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron based at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The squadron is tasked with the operational testing of the UK F-35B Lightning aircraft for the RAF since 2014.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “This is another step toward’s the UK’s carrier strike capability becoming fully operational.”
This was the first time F-35Bs operated by the Royal Air Force/Royal Navy are landing on the 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier as last’s year’s ‘developmental tests’ involved US jets. During the developmental trials, forces conducted 500 takeoffs and landings over their 11-week period at sea.
HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed from her homeport Portsmouth on August 30 for the deployment, named Westlant 19, to the U.S. East Coast for the F-35 operational testing. Type 45 destroyer HMS Dragon and Type 23 frigate HMS Northumberland are accompanying the carrier with tanker RFA Tideforce providing support to the Carrier Strike Group.
During the operational testing scheduled for the coming weeks, the carrier will also host F-35s operated by the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC). The trials will be led by the joint Royal Navy – Royal Air Force 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron from the Air Warfare Centre. The Squadron will be operating alongside personnel and aircraft from the UK Lightning Force, based out of RAF Marham.
These trials are aimed at ‘end-to-end’ testing of the aircraft and personnel to ensure the aircraft are compatible with the carrier. The tests involve mission planning, arming the aircraft using the ship’s Highly Automated Weapon Handling System, flying missions and debriefing on completion.
The UK currently owns 18 F-35 aircraft, with an additional order placed for 30 jets. Given its ability to conduct missions both from land and sea, the jets act as a formidable spine to UK’s ‘carrier strike’ capability.
The UK will declare Initial Operating Capability for Carrier Strike by the end of 2020. The first operational deployment for HMS Queen Elizabeth 617 Squadron and a squadron of US Marine Corps Lightning jets is due to take place in 2021.