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First F-35Bs on HMS Queen Elizabeth

Photo: Cdr Nathan Gray RN takes off from HMS Queen Elizabeth. LPhot Kyle Heller


A jet has operated from the deck of a Royal Navy warship for the first time since November 2010. On September 28, photos emerged on social media indicating that the first F-35B Lightning short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) fighters had begun trials on board the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth off the US east coast.

The first jet to land on the 65,000-ton warship was F-35B BF-05, on September 25, with Cdr Nathan Gray, Royal Navy, at the controls. It was followed by BF-04, flown by Sqn Cdr Andy Edgell, RAF. Cdr Gray subsequently made the first fixed-wing take-off from the vessel, using the ‘ski ramp’ bow ramp.

Cdr Nathan Gray RN, makes the first ever F-35B take-off from HMS ‘Queen Elizabeth’ on September 25. Lt Cdr Lindsey Waudby RN


The aircraft carrier departed her home port of Portsmouth on August 19 bound for the east coast of the United States to embark F-35B fighters for the first time. The two embarked F-35B test aircraft are from the Integrated Test Force (ITF) based at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, and will be on board during the four-month WESTLANT 18 deployment.

The ‘orange wired’ test aircraft are expected to conduct 500 take-offs and landings during an 11-week period at sea. The first-of-class flight trials (FOCFTs) will be supported by around 200 personnel, including pilots, engineers, maintainers and data analysts. The first deck landing occurred as expected in the last week in September. A tweet posted by HMS Queen Elizabeth social media team last week seemed to indicate that the F-35B embarkation was imminent:

The developmental trials will define the operating parameters of the aircraft and ship, in a range of conditions, and follow successful rotary-wing trials earlier this year.

The ITF team includes four F-35B developmental test pilots: three British, one American. The British personnel are Cdr Nathan Gray, RN, Sqn Ldr Andy Edgell, RAF, and civilian test pilot Pete ‘Wizzer’ Wilson from BAE Systems.  They will be joined by a major from the US Marine Corps.

Exercises will also prove the carrier’s ability to operate with other nations’ maritime and aviation assets, as well as landing Royal Marines and their equipment ashore in the US.

Ahead of the cruise, commanding officer of HMS Queen Elizabeth, Capt Jerry Kyd, said: “This deployment will be another first for my ship. Crossing a major ocean with 1,500 sailors, aircrew and marines embarked, and the spectre of the first F-35B Lightning landing on the deck in September, is very exciting for us all.”

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 headquarters staff.

On departing for the US, the carrier was joined by RFA Tiderace and the Type 23 frigate HMS Monmouth, as well as Merlin HM2 helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), RNAS Culdrose, Cornwall; three newly upgraded Commando Merlin HC4s from 845 NAS, RNAS Yeovilton, Somerset; and a contingent of Royal Marines from 42 Commando, Plymouth.

The Merlin HM2s from 820 NAS joined the task group after Exercise Joint Warrior, during which crews practised anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, search and rescue and casualty evacuation. The Merlin HC4s will provide deployed search and rescue (DSAR) to support the F-35B trials and maritime intra-theatre lift (MITL) in support of the task group.

Operational testing, using British F-35Bs, is scheduled to take place on board the carrier next year.

Cdr Nathan Gray and US Marine Corps Maj Michael Lippert, both F-35 Pax River ITF test pilots, conducted ski jump take-offs with F-35Bs on August 28, as part of work-ups for the FOCFTs aboard the HMS ‘Queen Elizabeth’. US DoD

Carrier air wing

The centrepiece of the QEC’s power-projection capability will be its air wing.

Speaking in 2016, Capt Jerry Kyd, commander of Queen Elizabeth and formerly at the helm of Ark Royal, explained: “We are constrained by the F-35 buy rate even though that was accelerated in the SDSR in 2015, so initial operating capability numbers in 2020 are going to be very modest indeed. We will flesh it out with helicopters, and a lot depends on how many USMC F-35s come on our first deployment in 2021. But by 2023, we are committed to 24 UK jets onboard, and after that it’s too far away to say.”

The decision to embarkUS Marine Corps (USMC) F-35Bs on the UK carrier – initially at least – was formalised by the then UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and his then US counterpart, Ash Carter, in December 2016. Under the agreement, USMC F-35B Lighting IIs will deploy on board the Queen Elizabeth when it undertakes its first operational cruise, planned to take place in the Pacific in 2021.

As yet unknown is the length of the deployment and whether the Lightning IIs will be joined by other USMC aircraft. Capt Kyd previously announced his aspiration to embark both USMC F-35Bs and V-22 Ospreys for a period of up to nine months.

Rear Admiral Keith Blount, the professional head of the Fleet Air Arm (FAA), explained to media in summer 2016 that the QEC air wing would be a scalable entity, ranging from 36 F-35Bs and Merlin Crowsnest airborne early warning and control (AEW&) helicopters in the carrier strike configuration, to a littoral manoeuvre complement of ten Commando-configured Merlin HC4s, two RAF Chinooks, plus British Army Wildcat AH1s and Apache AH1s and FAA Merlin HM2 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters.

RADM Blount admitted that putting 36 Lightnings on the deck of a QEC would require USMC jets to be incorporated and that the current concept of operations called for a 24-Lightning carrier strike package. With so many fixed-wing jets embarked, ASW protection for carrier strike would call for Merlin HM2s to operate from the decks of accompanying warships in the task group. RADM Blount added that two carriers would need to be in active service to ensure provision of both carrier strike and commando operations (littoral manoeuvre).

It seems likely that the QECs will normally deploy with something of a hybrid air wing. However, for certain operations the warships may operate as pure helicopter carriers. In one published configuration – known as littoral manoeuvre/air manoeuvre – a single carrier supports an air wing consisting of 12 Merlin HC4s, nine Merlin HM2s, eight Apaches, six Wildcat AH1s, five Merlin Crowsnest and three Chinooks. Also embarked would be two air manoeuvre companies and a littoral force HQ element.

Of course, the carrier itself is just the centrepiece of a larger and more flexible carrier strike group. Typically, this will comprise a pair of Type 45 air warfare destroyers, two multi-role frigates (Type 23, later supplemented by Type 26), one Astute-class nuclear-powered fleet submarine, plus afloat support (AFSUP) elements.

By 2023, the UK should have received 42 F-35Bs, including the frontline force of 24 jets that will be required for operational deployment.

For extensive coverage of the UK’s new carrier capability and the introduction of the F-35B, see the second edition of AirForces of the World, from the makers of AirForces Monthly and AirForces Intelligence. The volume is available here from the Key Publishing shop.


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