The first Wildcat helicopter landed on HMS Queen Elizabeth recently as the aircraft carrier heads to the United States for F-35 trials.
During her long transit across the Atlantic for ‘WESTLANT 18’, the carrier was cleared to embark call sign ‘Blackjack’ from 213 Flight, 815 Naval Air Squadron, based out of RNAS Yeovilton. The helicopter and crew are currently embarked in HMS Monmouth, the carrier’s escort.
— HMS MONMOUTH (@HMS_MONMOUTH) September 4, 2018
The Ministry of Defence say this is another step in the incremental process to bring the carrier to full operational capability in 2020 and comes after Rotary Wing Trials conducted in January, which cleared Merlin and Chinook for landing on the 4.5 acre flight deck.
The Wildcat’s primary role on ‘WESTLANT 18’ is protection of the carrier. To do so the crew will use the helicopter’s long-range sensors to build and maintain the ‘surface picture,’ identify any aggressors and prosecute if necessary using the M3M machine gun, Stingray Torpedoes or Depth Charges.
Fittingly, the first passenger to land on the carrier in the Wildcat was the Commander of the Carrier Strike Group, Cdre Andrew Betton say the Royal Navy. He said:
“As a critical step towards delivering the UK’s new Carrier Strike Group, this deployment demonstrates the astonishing collaborative effort that will enable the new F-35 jets to fly routinely from our Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.
At the heart of the Maritime Task Group, the aircraft carrier is well protected and sustained, ready to operate around the world as a potent and exceptionally flexible instrument of our foreign policy. These first F-35B embarked trials in a UK aircraft carrier are not only key to future operational success, but represent an iconic moment for the modern Royal Navy.”
The deployment, known as ‘WESTLANT 18’, is the first-time HMS Queen Elizabeth has sailed across the Atlantic. As well as the vital deck trials, the Royal Navy say it will also involve exercises to prove the ability to operate with other nations’ maritime and aviation assets, as well as the landing of Royal Marines and their equipment ashore in the United States, to conduct training with their US counterparts.
It is understood that around 200 trials support staff will be joined by two ‘orange wired’ F-35 test aircraft, belonging to the Integrated Test Force (ITF), which are expected to conduct 500 take offs and landings during their 11-week period at sea.
After speaking to one of the pilots in the test programme, I was informed that the UK only has three (BK1, 2 & 4) test jets that are “orange wired” to take data for post-flight analysis, the rest being operational aircraft. Therefore, it is highly likely that the jets to go on HMS Queen Elizabeth later this year will be “mostly, if not entirely, American but flown by UK pilots”.
The reason that most if not all of the aircraft to touch down will be American isn’t some scandalous outrage (just watch how some papers report this, though) but rather most of the F-35Bs in Joint Operational Test team are American. I was told by one of the UK pilots currently flying the jet that the reason for this is that the JOT team dictate the availability of test jets out of a pool. Our contact said:
“It would be nothing more than symbolic to make UK jets available for the trials and that comes at a significant effort since all of them are based at Edwards AFB in California, not on the East Coast where the ship trial is due to take place. Therefore, the most obvious and cheaper choice is to use the F-35B test jets based at Pax River, which are US ones. British test pilots like Andy Edgell, Nath Gray, will obviously fly them but there’ll be US pilots too because that’s how Joint Test works.”
The aim of these initial, or ‘developmental’ trials are to ascertain, through the specially equipped aircraft and sensors around the ship, the operating parameters of the aircraft and ship, in a range of conditions. Similar successful trials were conducted by HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea earlier this year for Rotary Wing aircraft.
Four F-35B Lightning developmental test pilots will embark to fly the aircraft; three British, one American. The British personnel comprise a Royal Navy Commander, a Squadron Leader from the Royal Air Force and one civilian test pilot. They will be joined by a Major from the US Marine Corps.