Pax River F-35 ITF Leaves HMS Queen Elizabeth After ‘Eclipsing Aspirations’

Royal Navy Cmdr. Nathan Gray, an F-35 Patuxent River Integrated Test Force (ITF) test pilot, continues first-of-class flight trials (fixed wing) developmental test flights aboard Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08). (Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin by Dane Wiedmann)


The F-35 Integrated Test Force team from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, departed HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) Nov. 19, following successful completion of the fifth-generation strike fighter’s first set of fixed-wing flight trials aboard the new U.K. aircraft carrier.

The trials—dubbed First of Class Flight Trials (Fixed Wing), or FOCFT(FW)—marked “a significant milestone on the Royal Navy’s journey back to big deck carrier operations,” said Royal Navy Capt. Nick Cooke Priest, HMS Queen Elizabeth’s Commanding Officer.

The eight-week evolution provided the green light for the ship to carry out F-35B operational trials later this year.

“The schedule has been busy and challenging and the results have eclipsed the aspiration,” Cooke Priest said. “This success is largely due to the exceptional relationship that exists between the ship and her embarked staff, and the scientists, engineers and pilots of the F-35 Integrated Test Force (ITF), all of whom have shown exceptional professionalism, dedication and drive.

“This deployment has, however, delivered far more than the initial integration of fixed-wing aircraft with the ship. It has re-introduced the true value that carrier capabilities bring to the U.K. and her allies. It has deepened our relationship with our closest ally, demonstrated our nation’s engineering prowess and cemented our commitment to the future as a global navy.”

An F-35B from the Patuxent River ITF approaches for landing aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth. (Royal Navy photo)

Two F-35B jets, four test pilots and nearly 175 personnel with the F-35 ITF spent eight weeks on the 65,000-ton warship, performing 202 short take-offs, 187 vertical landings and 15 shipborne rolling vertical landings, the latter a tactic unique to the U.K. that allows the jet to return to the ship with a heavier payload.

ITF engineers recorded masses of data from the ship and the jets that will determine the limits (weather, humidity, pitch-and-roll of the ship, aircraft weight) at which F-35Bs can safely launch from and land back on HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister, the future HMS Prince of Wales (R09).

“This has been one of the most comprehensive flight trials at sea ever conducted,” said Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Andy Edgell, FOCFT(FW) lead test pilot with the F-35 Pax River ITF. “I am very proud to have professionally executed every aspect of this trial and deliver for the U.K. a capability that can be exploited for years to come.”

The testing included the dropping of 54 dummy bombs in the Atlantic Ocean. Weapons experts loaded various configurations of the inert bombs onto the F-35Bs.

“This is only the beginning as we are starting a 50-year program with this aircraft carrier,” said Cmdr. James Blackmore, Commander Air aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth. “F-35B is at the start, but who knows what we’ll be flying from the deck in a few decades to come. What we do know for certain is that two-and-a-half years from now we will be ready to deliver HMS Queen Elizabeth and her Air Wing, including F-35B Lightning II aircraft, on operations at a time and a place of our choosing, fielding an awesome capability. The U.K. is truly back in the super-carrier league.”

“I am proud to have delivered this future and enduring operational capability,” said ITF test pilot Royal Navy Cmdr. Nathan Gray, who was the first person to land an F-35B jet on HMS Queen Elizabeth, adding that the success of the high-profile flight trials is a credit to the skills of the designers of both the F-35 and the ship herself.

“It is beyond question that without the vision of the Royal Navy and the unfailing support of the ship’s company, we would not have achieved what we have done,” he said.

“It goes without saying that this was a phenomenally successful shipboard detachment,” said Andrew Maack, F-35 Pax River ITF chief test engineer and site director. “I could not be more proud of the collective team effort between the ITF and the HMS Queen Elizabeth crew to make this happen.”

HMS Queen Elizabeth’s air weapons party members prepare a Paveway II bomb. (Royal Navy photo by LPhot Kyle Heller)

Britain’s carrier strike capability was put on an eight-year hiatus when the last fast jet, Harrier GR9, launched from HMS Ark Royal in 2010 with Blackmore in the pilot’s seat. Fast forward to the 2018 FOCFT(FW), and the pilot who closed one era held a key role in opening a new one for the U.K.

“That day was tinged with mixed emotions,” Blackmore recalled about the day he piloted the last-ever Harrier off a U.K. aircraft carrier. “It was a privilege to fly the last launch, but I also felt a sense of sadness that the U.K. was stepping into a capability gap for carrier strike that would last eight years. Being part of the team to re-start fixed-wing operations in the Queen Elizabeth-class carrier has filled me with a degree of immense pride. It continues to be a privilege.”

After a week in Norfolk, Virginia, offloading the ITF team and equipment, the ship arrived back to its homeport in Portsmouth, U.K., in early December.

“This is a positive time to be a Royal Navy Sailor, a positive time to be Royal Navy aircrew and a positive time for the U.K.-U.S. partnership in providing a greater depth of security across the globe,” said U.K. Carrier Strike Group Commander Commodore Michael Utley.

Jeff Newman is a staff writer for Naval Aviation News. Connie Hempel is the public affairs officer for the F-35 Pax River Integrated Test Force.