The first fixed wing fighter jet pilots have embarked in the Royal Navy’s new carrier as she prepares to receive the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter later this year.
The ship is coming to the end of a period at sea where she has been conducting first of class flying trials for rotary wing aircraft. Two Merlin Mk2 and two Chinook helicopters from the Aircraft Test and Evaluation Centre (ATEC) at MOD Boscombe Down have conducted hundreds of test sorties in a variety of conditions over the past few weeks, working through the aircraft’s operating parameters from the ship at sea.
The data gathered during the trials will enable the ship to declare Initial Operating Capability (IOC) as a Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) later this year, a role held most recently by HMS Ocean.
Royal Marines from 42 Commando have also been on board during this trials period, undergoing Assault training – whereby they are processed through the ship and launched by helicopter to conduct operations ashore.
Whilst the ship continues trials and prepares to return to the UK for upgrades and maintenance, the focus is switching from rotary wing trials to the first embarkation of fixed wing aircraft in the Autumn; the first F-35B Lightning II fighter jets will be flown from the carrier for the first time off the east coast of the USA.
Colonel Phil Kelly, Royal Marines, is one of four fixed wing pilots to have joined HMS Queen Elizabeth in recent days, to set the conditions for the future integration of fixed wing squadrons. As Strike Warfare Commander for the UK Carrier Strike Group (CSG), and a former Harrier, Sea Harrier and F-18 pilot, his aim is to ensure that the lay-down of the carrier air wing is the most efficient it can be for future flying operations.
He explained: “This ship and its capability has been decades in the making and I am here to help bring together the air strike battle aspects. I have flown from all of the Invincible class carriers and from the American Carriers USS Bush, Truman and Reagan. This is now my seventh carrier, so to be able to bring my previous experience back here to be able to set this ship up ready to receive strike fighters, and hopefully in the future to be able to come back and fly them, is an immense privilege.”
Also joining the ship is Commander James Blackmore who takes up the role of Commander Air, more affectionately known as ‘Wings’. Joining HMS Queen Elizabeth directly from Command of the Fixed Wing Force at RNAS Culdrose, and having the privilege of piloting the last ever Sea Harrier to launch from HMS Ark Royal, he will oversee the integration of the Joint Strike Fighter and its supporting elements.
“This is something we have all waited for about 20 years to see, it’s very exciting and a real privilege to be a part of”, he said. “The main challenge for us is getting focused on bringing a jet to sea again, and that’s not a simple prospect. There are only a handful of nations in the world who operate aircraft carriers and aircraft at sea.
“In simple terms, when an aircraft leaves the deck, it leaves its runway and the runway isn’t where it left it when it comes back. The runway pitches, rolls, heaves, moves, gets covered in waves – all those things are at play when you bring an aircraft onto the deck. That will be a unique thing for many of our people, and we need to train to understand and work with the challenges involved in conducting our air operations safely”.
Col Kelly and Cdr Blackmore are joined on board by Cdr Mike Mullen, on exchange to the Carrier Strike Group from the US Navy, and Lieutenant Commander Ed Phillips RN, between them bringing the experience of thousands of deck landings and multiple worldwide combat operation tours.
Cdr Blackmore says co-operation with the US Navy and Marine Corps in particular has been of real value to the integration process.
He explains: “Co-operation and integration with our coalition colleagues is absolutely fundamental for us going forward. It is part of the reason we have had pilots, air traffic controllers, aircraft handlers and intelligence officers in the States, and with the French, operating from their carriers, pulling in the knowledge of how they operate. Of course we can do it on our own, but as we enter into coalition task groups in the future, those relationships and the knowledge we are gleaning now is critical”.