The UK Royal Navy’s first Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth departed her homeport of HMNB Portsmouth on Aug. 18 marking the beginning of her 3,400-mile long trip across the Atlantic to the east coast of the USA.
The 11-week deployment to the U.S. will see the first landing of the F-35B Lightning II stealth fighter jet onto the flight deck of the 65,000-tonne carrier – eight years since a jet last took off from a British aircraft carrier. The historic first landing is earmarked to take place towards the end of September.
Queen Elizabeth will embark two F-35B test aircraft from the Integrated Test Force (ITF), based out of Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, during the deployment. Around 200 supporting staff, including pilots, engineers, maintainers and data analysts will be joined by two ‘orange wired’ test aircraft, belonging to the ITF, which are expected to conduct 500 take offs and landings during their 11-week period at sea.
The aim of these initial, or ‘developmental’ trials are to ascertain, through the specially equipped aircraft and sensors around the ship, the operating parameters of the aircraft and ship, in a range of conditions. Similar successful trials were conducted by HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea earlier this year for Rotary Wing aircraft.
Four F 35B Lightning developmental test pilots, who are members of the ITF, will embark to fly the aircraft; three British, one American. The British personnel comprise a Royal Navy Commander, a Squadron Leader from the Royal Air Force and one civilian test pilot. They will be joined by a Major from the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC).
The trials follow the recent arrival into the UK of the first joint Royal Navy, Royal Air Force F-35B jets, based at RAF Marham. ‘Operational testing’, utilising British F-35B aircraft are scheduled to take place on board HMS Queen Elizabeth next year.
The deployment, known as ‘WESTLANT 18’, will be the first-time HMS Queen Elizabeth will have sailed across the Atlantic. As well as the vital deck trials, it will also involve exercises to prove the ability to operate with other nations’ maritime and aviation assets, as well as the landing of Royal Marines and their equipment ashore in the United States, to conduct training with their US counterparts.
As the ship’s work-up continues, so too does the regeneration of the UK’s Carrier Strike capability. Commander UK Carrier Strike Group (COMUKCSG), Cdre Andrew Betton, will take command of the ship and other units of his task group, embarking in HMS Queen Elizabeth with his Carrier Strike Group headquarters staff.
The ship will conduct trials in UK waters over the coming days, before departing for the USA later this month. She will be joined by RFA Tiderace (A137), a Tide-class replenishment tanker of the British Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA); HMS Monmouth (F235), a Type 23 Duke”-class frigate of the Royal Navy; as well as Merlin Mk2 helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron, RNAS Culdrose, Mk 4 Merlins from 845 Naval Air Squadron, RNAS Yeovilton and a contingent of Royal Marines from 42 Commando, Plymouth.
In June this year, the first four F-35Bs arrived at RAF Marham two months ahead of schedule allowing the UK’s Lightning Force to focus on achieving initial operational capability (IOC) by the end of 2018. The latest five jets arrived earlier this month. The jets will be jointly operated by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Navy.
The UK currently has 15 F-35B aircraft in total, the remainder of which are stationed at MCAS Beaufort or Edwards Air Force Base in California, where they are involved in testing and training.
Around the world, there are now nearly 300 F-35 aircraft operating from 15 bases globally and the programme has achieved more than 140,000 flight hours.