On September 27th, two F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters landed on the only British aircraft carrier the HMS Queen Elizabeth. For the first time fast jets have landed on the deck of the Royal Navy’s new carrier.
The landings are part of tests of the F-35Bs and will take 11 weeks, during which more than 500 landings and takeoffs are to take place.
The jets taking part in the trials are not part of the permanent complement of aircraft that will be stationed on the carrier. These have now started to arrive in the UK, to their land base at RAF Marham in Norfolk.
The two jets were landed by Royal Navy Cmdr. Nathan Gray and Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Andy Edgell. They flew from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. to the 70,000-ton carrier.
Gray, who had trained with the US-based F-35 Integrated Test Force said that the landing was just like any other test flight.
“Coming into land for the first time on Tuesday, the aircraft handled as expected; the interaction between the aircraft and the ship is exactly as expected, as we’ve simulated thousands and thousands of times before and landed onboard,” he said. “There were no surprises.”
For the Royal Navy the first landing of an F-35 on the HMS Queen Elizabeth was a significant event. “We are enjoying getting back into the big time, and this is one of those big steps forward on that ladder,” Rear Adm. Keith Blount, the Royal Navy’s Assistant Chief of Naval Staff for Aviation, Amphibious Capability and Carrier told a group of American defense trade reporters embarked on the carrier on Thursday.
“When you see that jet out there today, having landed on the ship, taking off from the ship, we’re taking big steps back into that game again. And it’s hugely exciting, and it should be reassuring to those folks back home and indeed on this side of the Atlantic.”
The commanding officer of Queen Elizabeth, Capt Jerry Kidd, was by coincidence also in command of the last carrier on which Sea Harriers were in operation. “I am quite emotional to be here in HMS Queen Elizabeth seeing the return of fixed-wing aviation,” he said. “The regeneration of big deck carriers able to operate globally, as we are proving here on this deployment, is a major step forward for the United Kingdom’s defence and our ability to match the increasing pace of our adversaries. The first touch-downs of these impressive stealth jets shows how the United Kingdom will continue to be world leaders at sea for generations to come.”
The landing of the two F-35s is the first time the Royal Navy has operated fixed-wing aviation off a carrier deck since the U.K. flew the last sortie of AV-8B Harriers off the now-decommissioned HMS Ark Royal (R07) in 2011. The HMS Ark Royal was decommissioned in 2012.
“I think the awakening in the political class that this sends a political message when she sails is important, and that’s new to us,” ship commander Capt. Jerry Kyd said.
The aim of this test is to establish the baseline for F-35 ahead of more complex operational testing off the East Coast in 2019.
The tests aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth pairs the two F-35s with four test pilots – the two British pilots in addition to a US Marine and a civilian test pilot. USNI observed the two fighters with the ITF assigned to the “Salty Dogs” of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 both landing and taking off of Elizabeth’s ski-jump bow.
UK and US pilots have been training at Pax River on a mockup of the hull’s ski-jump ramp, which breaks with the straight line of US amphibious assault ships that also operate the F-35B.
“Queen Elizabeth obviously has a ski-jump, which provides some performance benefits, and obviously the U.K. has long been a fan of that, as is another nation that’s a partner in the F-35 program, Italy,” Marine Maj. Michael Lippert was cited by USNI News.
This also shows the cooperation between UK and US Marines during the test period. A Marine F-35B squadron will join the Royal Navy strike group on its first operational deployment in 2021 as part of the air group.
“The U.K. and the U.S. Marine Corps have a long history. We’ve done joint operations with Harriers, we’ve had exchange programs for a very long time, and for the past several years the U.K. has had the foresight to have exchange programs with several of their officers and some of their enlisted folks on exchange with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, and that has paid huge dividends,” Lippert said. “It’s wildly apparent that they’re wholly prepared for this.”
The testing of the F-35 jets on the HMS Queen Elizabeth in addition also helps the Royal Navy get accustomed to operating carrier strike groups at sea once again.
In 2011, the UK decided to take Harriers off British ships, but the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force maintained exchanged programs with the US to keep some UK sailors familiar with the process, according to Commanding officer Kyd, cited by USNI News.
“We’ve been really lucky that we’ve cycled a lot of the crew through U.S. carriers in the last five years. Several hundred of my ship’s company have been deployed on operations bombing ISIS, and the last four or five years the pilots, the deckhands, chefs and specialists, my officers of the watch, my navigator,” Kyd said. “To keep that pilot light alive has been well managed, so it’s not like we’re starting at ground zero at any stretch of the imagination.”
Kyd was the commander of the HMS Ark Royal, he is now on the HMS Elizabeth, together with other sailors who were present at the last deployment. “In terms of operating the ship, it’s quite similar to the pocket aircraft carriers we had, it’s just the deck is four times the size,” he said. “For me, the similarities are sufficient that it, in fact, feels quite normal out here.”
The introduction of the F-35s had a setback. On September 29th, US Marine Corps released a statement saying that a F-35B jet crashed in South Carolina, the pilot safely ejected and there were no injuries. It is yet unclear why the jet, which is estimated to have cost around $100 million, crashed, and there is an investigation underway.
As a reminder, in august the Project On Government Oversight reported that to go past the development phase, the F-35 project team downgraded 19 deficiencies in the jet, which threaten the life of the pilot and those who are working on the jet. The deficiencies were downgraded without any solutions being provided.