A 17 Squadron F-35B in flight over HMS Queen Elizabeth. (L/Phot Daniel Shepherd/Crown Copyright)

British F-35s Fly from Royal Navy Carrier for First Time

British F-35 Lightnings have operated from the Royal Navy’s next generation aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, for the first time.

Flown by Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force pilots, at least four of the jets embarked on the new 65,000 tonne carrier ahead of operational trials off the East Coast of the United States.

The trials are aimed at ‘end-to-end’ testing of the F-35 and personnel to ensure the aircraft are compatible and include mission planning, arming aircraft with the ship’s HAWHS (Highly Automated Weapon Handling System) and aerial operations. The exercises are seen as a critical step in the development of the Royal Navy’s carrier strike capability.

Cleared for take off; an F-35B about to power down the carrier’s flight deck. (L/Phot Kyle Heller/Crown Copyright)

The Queen Elizabeth has been escorted by the  Type 45 destroyer Dragon, Type 23 frigate Northumberland and an RFA tanker, Tideforce. Operations also included Merlin and Wildcat helicopters from 814, 820, 845 and 815 Naval Air Squadrons respectively.

The F-35Bs deployed to the carrier are part of Marham-based Lightning Force, which unifies RAF and naval aircrew and ground personnel in intermixed squadrons. The aircraft involved in the ongoing trials are from 17 Squadron, the Lightning Force’s Test and Evaluation Squadron and the force includes the legendary 617 squadron, which in June 2019 completed the RAF’s first F-35 sorties when it flew a patrol over Syria.

The first Fleet Air Arm squadron to adopt the F-35 will be 809 NAS – the ‘Immortals’ – expected to recommission in 2023. An Operational Conversion Unit, 207 Squadron, stood up on 1 August and in the future two further squadrons, one RAF and one naval, are slated to be formed.

Footage showing the first British F-35 to land on HMS Queen Elizabeth.

The new aircraft carrier is expected to carry a dozen of the supersonic stealth multi-role jets on peacetime deployments, with a typical complement of 24 deployed when required although the ship, and her sister HMS Prince of Wales, could theoretically operate upwards of 40 or more. A number of helicopters for anti-submarine, troop transport, utility, and airborne early warning roles will be carried on board and the hangars and lifts can accommodate Apache attack helicopters, Chinooks, and Osprey tiltrotor aircraft.

An F-35 operating between the carrier and HMS Dragon. (L/Phot Kyle Heller)

Commander of the Strike Group, Commodore Mike Utley, Royal Navy said: “Getting to this point of embarking UK Lightning jets into our British-built carrier has been a significant joint undertaking by industry and military – both ours, and those from the United States… We will take the jets from the successful developmental phase we achieved last year through to a more operational footing, so we are confident that the jets, the carrier and our destroyers and frigates will function seamlessly together.”

Getting to this point of embarking UK Lightning jets into our British-built carrier has been a significant joint undertaking

The first pilot to land on the carrier during the trials, Wing Commander Adam Curd, said: “This is the first time I have landed onboard an aircraft carrier – for it to be HMS Queen Elizabeth, and in an aircraft as amazing as a UK Lightning, is quite something.

“This is a proud moment not only for me, but the wider team that has brought us to this milestone for maritime aviation and UK Defence”.

HMS Queen Elizabeth is expected to be declared operational for strike sorties in 2020, with the first deployment planned for 2021 where the carrier will embark 617 Squadron jets and a squadron of US Marine Corps Lightnings. ∎

Two F-35s secured on deck. (L/Phot Kyle Heller/Crown Copyright)
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