Flown by Royal Navy and Royal Air Force pilots, the F-35B Lightning jets are embarking in the 65,000 tonne carrier to conduct operational trials off the East Coast of the USA. This follows successful developmental trials last year with US Lightning jets, where forces conducted 500 take offs and landings over their 11-week period at sea.
These trials are aimed at ‘end-to-end’ testing of the aircraft and personnel to ensure the aircraft are compatible with the carrier. The tests involve mission planning, arming the aircraft using the ship’s Highly Automated Weapon Handling System, flying missions and debriefing on completion.
The landings on HMS Queen Elizabeth are part of the ‘WESTLANT 19’ Carrier Strike Group deployment. Once fully operational, UK Carrier Strike Group will be a formidable force around the world, using a number of platforms to work alongside our allies. This is another step towards the UK’s carrier strike capability becoming fully operational.
During this time, the aircraft carrier will be escorted by Type 45 destroyer HMS Dragon, submarine hunter HMS Northumberland, tanker RFA Tideforce and Merlins from 814, 820 and 845 Naval Air Squadrons, Wildcats from 815 squadron and Royal Marines from Lima Company, 42 Commando.
The Lightning aircraft operates with a cutting-edge design. It is the first jet to combine radar evading stealth technology with supersonic speed, as well as the ability to land vertically. Given its ability to conduct missions both from land and sea, the jets act as a formidable spine to the ‘carrier strike’ capability. The UK currently owns 18 aircraft, with an additional order placed for 30 jets.
The trials will be led by the joint Royal Navy – Royal Air Force 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron from the Air Warfare Centre. The Squadron will be operating alongside personnel and aircraft from the UK Lightning Force, based out of RAF Marham.
The UK will declare Initial Operating Capability for Carrier Strike by the end of 2020. The first operational deployment for HMS Queen Elizabeth 617 Squadron and a squadron of US Marine Corps Lightning jets is due to take place in 2021.