Merlin helicopters were the first aircraft to begin flying from HMS Queen Elizabeth and they will soon be followed by F-35 jets in Autumn this year.

Here at the UK Defence Journal we really point this out often but we’re getting closer and closer to ending the ‘carrier with no planes’ nonsense that appears all over social media so we’re happy to restate this once again.

HMS Queen Elizabeth is expected to start fixed-wing flight trials with three or more F-35Bs off the eastern coast of the US around September this year. A fantastic info-graphic created by SaveTheRoyalNavy can be found here and details the timeline of the programme.

In order to prepare for operating from HMS Queen Elizabeth, Royal Navy sailors have also trained alongside their US Navy counterparts on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp. Last year, the Royal Navy sent six Sailors to integrate into Wasp’s flight deck operations to prepare them for their upcoming Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.

F-35 flight trials on the USS Wasp.

Royal Navy sailor Richard Clark said:

“Living with one another is good for integration, so when we work together, when we have your aircraft come to our flight decks, and vice versa, we’ll have a bit more awareness of how we each operate. It helps us work with you better on different platforms when we need to. This is the first group of guys who are not 1st Classes. Some of them have never been on a ship before, so for the younger guys, it’s good for them to get experience.”

Recent F-35 trials aboard the USS Wasp weren’t just an operational test for the United States Marine Corps, with much of the data produced being used to inform the USMC’s declaration of initial operating capability but also for the United Kingdom. UK personnel were fully embedded in the USS Wasp trials and will use the data gathered from this event, future trials and operational deployments to support the UK’s flying trials aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth off the US coast in Spring next year.

An aviation boatswain’s mate directs an F-35B aboard the USS Wasp.

British F-35 pilots also recently embarked on the USS America for at-sea developmental testing phase 3 (known as DT), the last trial that paves the way for the US Marine Corps to deploy the jet operationally on amphibious assault ships. BAE Systems test pilot Pete Wilson said about the upcoming trials on the HMS Queen Elizabeth:

“This will not be a DT phase. Testing on the Queen Elizabeth will be like DTs 1, 2 and 3 combined. We don’t need to use fully instrumented aircraft; we already understand most of the loads on the aircraft systems, as we have tested that during earlier tests.”

HMS Prince of Wales will take over F-35 trials to allow HMS Queen Elizabeth to return to dock for her routine re-certification work.

Former Captain of the vessel Ian Groom told media that HMS Prince of Wales will need to be delivered during 2019 to allow flight trails to continue whilst Queen Elizabeth is undergoing inspection in dry dock. Quoted in Janes, Groom said:

“There is a further set of fixed-wing flying trials needed and HMS Prince of Wales has to carry them out. HMS Queen Elizabeth’s re-certification period in 2019 means we need HMS Prince of Wales then.”

What will the vessels carry when in operational service?

The term now used for the carriers embarked squadrons is ‘Carrier Air Wing’ (CVW). The vessels are capable of deploying a variety of aircraft in large numbers, up to a maximum in the upper fifties in surge conditions. Captain Jerry Kyd, commander of HMS Queen Elizabeth, commented on the initial deployment and the gradual increase in air wing numbers:

“We are constrained by the F-35 buy rate even though that was accelerated in SDSR in 2015, so initial operating capability numbers in 2020 are going to be very modest indeed. We will flesh it out with helicopters, and a lot depends on how many USMC F-35s come on our first deployment in 2021. But by 2023, we are committed to 24 UK jets onboard, and after that it’s too far away to say.”

In 2023, the UK will have 42 F-35 aircraft, with 24 being front-line fighters and the remaining 18 will be used for training (at least 5 on the OCU), be in reserve or in maintenance.

An Apache takes off from HMS Ocean during the war in Libya.

In addition to the joint force of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy F-35Bs and their pilots, the air wing is expected to be composed of a ‘Maritime Force Protection’ package of nine anti-submarine Merlin HM2 and four or five Merlin for airborne early warning; alternatively a ‘Littoral Manoeuvre’ package could include a mix of RAF Chinooks, Army Apaches, Merlin HC4 and Wildcat HM2.

The Crowsnest AEW&C aircraft will come from a number of the embarked Merlins (any of which can be fitted with the sensor package), the number again scaling with requirements.

We understand that vessel would still carry at least one F-35 squadron aboard in such circumstances to offer air defence as well as support to the helicopter assault activities.

A source we spoke to, currently flying the jet, explained to us that the vessels will deploy with the number and type of aircraft required for a specific deployments:

“Where F-35B is based is entirely down to the most suitable basing option for the tasks/missions is being sent to do. If that’s a well-founded host nation base, great; if it’s the Carrier, great; if it’s an austere location, fine. Range, logistics and other ‘enablers’ such as AAR and connectivity will determine what’s the best option.”

The Queen Elizabeth class mark a change from expressing carrier power in terms of number of aircraft carried, to the number of sortie’s that can be generated from the deck. The class are not the largest class of carrier in the world but they are most likely the smallest and least expensive carrier the Royal Navy could build which still have the advantages that large carriers offer.

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does anyone know if there is a documentary made about the QE carrier like channel 4 did with the type 45 not the impossible engineering one…


I believe it is currently being filmed, for release later this year or 2019.

Rob Collinson

I would be very interested in this. I asked this question several months ago. As the general public, we have paid £6bn for these carriers. We need to see what we have spent out hard earn money on.

I four part documentary could look at the QE in action and the PW still in construction.

Come, on BBC, C4 or C5.

Peter Crisp

The program could also highlight the training programs and other benefits of the yards to the local community.

andy reeves

i’d be happier to see missile systems being fitted

Charles Clarke

It’s been on BBC 2, you can get it on iPlayer

Mark B

Is it not true that the ship is already acting as deterent? All the F35s we have however modest in number could quickly be united with HMS Queen Elizabeth if necessary – a fact that any potential adversary would need take into account. Are we not simply doing what every maritime power does during peacetime – training?

Barry White

BBC wont do it
Are you kidding
You know they are a leftist organization and hate anything defence related even though its us who pay there wages
I for one would love to see the BBC dismantled
I hate adverts and to be honest i dont think people take any notice of them but at least they are useful as it gives us time to make a cuppa or get a can


To be fair to the BBC they gave the launch, etc of Queen Elizabeth plenty of coverage on the news. It was the more right wing Sun who had the ignorant front page about her having sprung a leak.

andy reeves

the just as momentus float ot of the prince of wales hardly got a mention

Daniele Mandelli

Quite right Barry, sad to say.

Evan P

I watched BBC news when QE was launched, and there was no negativity about it at all. I think you’re barking up the wrong tree here. After all, TH is right wing.

Frank Crewe

Well I play their wages as well and I like the BBC just as it is. These carriers on the other hand are a floating waste of space, not to mention taxpayers money.

Charles Clarke

Well isn’t that funny, the 3 part documentary, on BBC2, has just finished airing. It’s called Britain’s Biggest Warship.


Has anyone else taken a good look at the deck graphic – 28 F35’s and 8 Merlins can easily be stacked on deck and probably a lot more given this is what we can see around the periphery.

The QEC’s should be deploying with at least 48 aircraft (of different types) every time otherwise these things are sailing about half empty.

Its just madness to spend so much money on something so big and then put so few aircraft on it.

andy reeves

al r.n ships should go to see with all it would need to do its job. guns planes missiles. if they’re not. why have a navy?

Jason A Smith

Bare in mind ….. that Corbyns Labour Party win the next general election all this Kit will be going in the bin !! In short what is left of the UK will be left pretty well defenceless !!!


The unnamed source that made the stupid quote about operating from airfields or the carriers, or whatever, was 100% RAF. No freakin clue about seapower.

Evan P

I’m not sure how it was stupid. The F35s have the ability to operate from airfields and carriers…


Ron5 – And I am sure many ex Crabs would happily inform the Andrew they know little about current 4.5 and 5th Gen air power and were happy to give them their Merlins

See it works both ways? So maybe less of the anti-RAF drivel. The Crabs were happy to respect the ‘Year of the Navy’ but it seems the RAF’s 100th Birthday got lost in the post….

Geoffrey Roach

The safest way for the nation and the Royal Navy to make a success of these ships is to invite the British media to stay away completely. Can you imagine any of the media running a programme with ” new Royal Navy carriers hailed a success ” or “the UK now has a strike force that is the envy of the world “. Anyone who thinks so…please send me lots of money and \i will invest it wisely!!


Pacman 27; you have read the plans for F-35 deployments. a commitment for no more than 24 operational aircraft by 2023!! But we have 26 trained RAF and FAA pilots as at the end of 2017 according to the MOD. I agree 12 jets on a flight deck that large looks ridiculous but that is where we are. Quite why we cannot have 3 FAA and 2 RAF frontline squadrons by 2023 is beyond me. You can tag on what reserve/OCU squadrons – probably one of each – you will need. which adds up to 84 aircraft out of a… Read more »

Clive Williams

As currently configured, the QE is too easily sunk. There are inadequate numbers of escorts and little self-defence capability. The number of Phalanx guns should be doubled and the Type 26 frigate missile system added.
Meanwhile, four tracked Rapier launchers from the Army could be borrowed. 32 missiles would be available for extra defence.