The F-35B Lightning jets have stepped up to the next level of training after the pilots completed their carrier qualification in both day and night time conditions. 617 Squadron, ‘The Dambusters’, and the US Marine Corps’ VMFA-211 jets, spent three days on exercise, dropping 500lb Paveway IV high explosive bombs onto a dedicated range off the coast of the UK.

The training proved HMS Queen Elizabeth’s ability to deliver F-35 strike mission sets from weapon prep through to execution. Captain James Blackmore, Commander Air Group, said: “Working with British and American live weapons is a new experience for the Royal Navy, and the next step on the road toward full operational capability. Everyone needs to step up a gear to ensure we are ahead of the game as we move toward HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first operational deployment next year, as from that moment onwards we need to be ready to do this for real.

HMS Queen Elizabeth is currently leading a nine-ship Carrier Strike Group with 15 jets and 11 helicopters. It is the highest number of jets to embark on the 65,000-tonne carrier.

Commander Mark Sparrow Royal Navy, commanding officer of 617 Squadron, said: “The first week of GroupEx set the baseline for higher tempo deck operations on the Squadron. That was a springboard for the next phase, which was to load live weapons on the aircraft, which we had not done from HMS Queen Elizabeth before. It was an opportunity to end-to-end test all the systems within the ship and the squadron, from building and loading the weapons all the way through to successfully releasing them on target. It’s a fantastic achievement and hugely beneficial for junior pilots, both Royal Navy and RAF, to build the confidence that they can fly from the carrier, refuel, hit the target on a range and then return to slot back into a busy flying programme on-board.

F-35B Royal Navy

The live weapons training comes as HMS Queen Elizabeth proved she can defend herself from air threats as she exercised with the Royal Navy’s Hawks from 736 Naval Air Squadron, the Royal Navy’s ‘attacker’ squadron. The jets from RNAS Culdrose have been taking part in training with NATO ships as well as RAF Typhoons and the Lightning stealth fighters.

The squadron is used to test ship’s companies and fighter controllers in how to respond to hostile aircraft or incoming missiles.

It is part of the annual multi-national Exercise Joint Warrior, which is taking place off the east coast of Scotland this month.  The black-painted 736 squadron jets were operating from RAF Leeming in Yorkshire before moving up to Aberdeen International Airport for the start of Joint Warrior. Exercise Joint Warrior sees more than 6,000 soldiers, 81 air assets, 28 ships and 130 ground troops from 11 nations coming together to improve their ability to respond to emerging threats.

F-35B Royal Navy

Lieutenant Commander Jason Flintham, 736’s Commanding Officer, said: “Our role is to be the enemy – the bad guys if you like. It’s not easy, but we try to be as difficult as possible and push the abilities of our personnel to respond to a high-speed aerial threat. In one situation, 736 Squadron provided four Hawks as part of an 11-aircraft airborne threat against 11 RAF Typhoons. With 22 aircraft in the air fighting on this occasion, it was super exciting to be involved with and it demands much concentration and skill from my navy pilots. These large-scale exercises are key to the delivery of the UK’s Carrier Strike Group, and 736 Squadron is at the forefront of preparing our ships for future operations around the world.

Photo credits: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2020 / Belinda Alker

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