Aircrew members from HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08), the flagship of the Royal Navy’s new class of aircraft carrier, visited Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland, May 15, for their first peek at the F-35B Lightning II.
That afternoon, approximately 20 members of the HMS Queen Elizabeth flying control and flight deck control teams witnessed two F-35B test aircraft taxi, conduct short takeoffs and perform two vertical landings apiece. The ground shook as each aircraft approached the tarmac for its vertical landings, hovering for several seconds before descending. The landings and takeoffs were led by the F-35 Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF) team.
The next day, the ship’s team took over and, acting as landing signal officers, taxied and refueled an F-35B for the first time. Steady rain limited the team’s activities on the third day of its visit before its departure for the United Kingdom.
In terms of getting his crew familiar with the F-35B before this year’s first ship trials off the U.S. East Coast, the trip was a success, said Royal Navy Cmdr. James Blackmore, Commander Air aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth.
“It’s the first time they’ve ever seen the jet or been up close to it as it’s performing its flight maneuvers,” Blackmore said. “So they got to feel the environment of what it’s like—the sort of noise, the heat, the sound and the pressure of the aircraft—so that when it comes to deck for the first time, it’s not a surprise.”
“It was a chance to actually see the aircraft flying properly, operate it, be close to the aircraft in its operation, move a real aircraft around, refuel a real aircraft,” said Cmdr. Stephen Crockatt, U.K. lead at the ITF. “The U.K. does have some models, which we use for flight deck training, but those are models. They’re representative, but not to the level of having a real aircraft.”
For instance, Crockatt noted, attaching a fuel hose to a quiet, model aircraft is far different an experience than doing so to an F-35B with its engine on.
“It actually gave them the realism that’s needed,” he said. “So the effect of appreciating the real aircraft is going to be a lot greater after this visit, and when we bring the aircraft to land on the carrier, it’ll be more of a known element.”
The F-35B’s “first-of-class” flight trials aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth will be conducted in three phases, Crockatt said.
“This is quite a massive trial for not only the U.K., but for the ITF,” he said.
Just as important for the HMS Queen Elizabeth crew was meeting and working with the ITF members who will be aboard the ship during trials, ensuring both teams understand how each operates and will work together.
“As we get toward the trial, that kind of mutual understanding will make it better,” Crockatt said. “Because when we go to the trial, we are not the ITF or Queen Elizabeth; we are the total capability, which is getting a first-of-class flight trial operating envelope for the Lightning II for the future for the U.K.”
After the ship trials, the U.K. will conduct operational test and evaluation for its F-35B maritime operations next year, Crockatt said.
As HMS Queen Elizabeth’s “air boss,” Blackmore is in charge of all aviation on board a ship “that’s been designed specifically for the F-35,” he said.
At roughly 65,000 tons, HMS Queen Elizabeth is much smaller than U.S. Navy carriers, but its flight deck and hangar are approximately the same size, Blackmore said. The key difference between the two nation’s aircraft carriers is the Queen Elizabeth class’s flight deck, which is designed exclusively to handle helicopters and the F-35B, the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variant of the fifth-generation fighter.
“From the keel up, it’s all been about F-35 from day one,” he said.
For the U.K., the F-35B represents a return to carrier aviation, one that holds particular significance for Blackmore, who, in November 2010, piloted the last Harrier II flight off the HMS Ark Royal, the U.K.’s last aircraft carrier. Equally fitting, the Ark Royal’s captain at the time, Commodore Jerry Kyd, is now captain of HMS Queen Elizabeth.
“So if you like, I almost closed down what we used to do,” Blackmore said. “The fact that, eight years later, I’m now here opening that back up with the team is really good.”
Despite that years-long gap in U.K. carrier aviation, HMS Queen Elizabeth will have plenty of experienced carrier pilots and crew on board—in recent years, the Royal Navy has embedded personnel on U.S. carriers “so we can keep that skill set alive,” Crockatt said.
“But even then, the alive skill set is on an F/A-18 or on a Harrier,” he noted. “The Lightning II is, of course, a different beast.”
Blackmore called the F-35B “a step change for the U.K. in how we’re going to conduct business.”
“The fact that it’s a F-35 is pivotal, because you’re in the fifth-generation game now with aircraft, which brings stealth, sensor fusion, advanced weapons and the ability to project aviation and power ashore at your choosing,” he said.
Jeff Newman is a staff writer for Naval Aviation News.