The F-35 Patuxent River Integrated Test Force (ITF) is nearing a milestone as they prepare to embark two F-35Bs on board aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Thewy will be conducting First of Class Flight Trials (Fixed Wing), or FOCFT (FW).

Nearly 200 ITF personnel—active duty US and British personnel military, DOD civilians as well as contractors from British and American companies—will join the ship’s 1,500-person crew in making history when the two jets land on the British carrier.

The event will be the first time an F-35 has ever landed on a non-American vessel and it helps bring an end to the eight-year hiatus since a British aircraft carrier last operated a fast jet from its deck.

“It’ll be the return of fixed-wing maritime aviation to the UK,” said Royal Navy Cmdr. Stephen Crockatt, UK team lead at the ITF.

“From there on, the UK F-35B Lightnings can partake in supporting the defence of our realm from both land and sea, wherever the UK government decides.”

During two FOCFT (FW) phases, held back-to-back in a few weeks, the team plans to perform a variety of flight manoeuvres and deck operations to develop the F-35B operating envelope on Queen Elizabeth Class (QEC) carriers. They will evaluate jet performance on over 200 test points during different weather and sea conditions as well as the aircraft’s integration with the ship.

The FOCFT (FW) is the culmination of a decade of planning with individuals from UK and US governments and industry partners in both countries.

“It has been a genuine team endeavor from the start,” said Dave Atkinson, BAE Systems lead for FOCFT (FW), based in the U.K.

“No one individual or no one organisation can do everything on something of this scale. The detailed knowledge you need about the ship, the aircraft and the environment; you really must have a team ethos.”

While planning for test events typically doesn’t start that far ahead, Atkinson said all the moving parts and specific equipment needed to integrate the jet and carrier, coupled with the simultaneous design and development of the two, the lead time “had to be extensive to bring many elements together.”

As ship and jet development on both sides of the Atlantic neared completion, engineers and pilots from the Pax River ITF and BAE Systems dove deep into writing the test plan, a 300-plus page manual detailing the FOCFT (FW) execution.

In order to do so, pilots and engineers experimented with over 3,000 takeoffs and landings in BAE Systems F-35/QEC Integration Simulator—a full motion, dome simulator—based in Warton, England, to discover “where the edges of the test envelope are,” said Royal Air Force Sq. Ldr. Andy Edgell, FOCFT (FW) lead test pilot at the Pax River ITF.

“That was where we really got the first idea of how far can we push this aircraft on [a Queen Elizabeth Class carrier] deck,” he said.

“The Queen Elizabeth Class carriers are incredibly unique.”

Edgell said there are a few “British traits” built into HMS Queen Elizabeth—notably, a ski jump ramp at the front and iconic twin islands on the flight deck separating the Bridge and Flight Control (FLYCO)—and each create variances to typical flying operations experienced on an American naval vessel.

“First drafts of the test plan were authored in early 2017, and the team spent months in 2018 further sculpting and crafting each detail to complete the document in time to start the required training flights prior to the trial,” said Timothy Marge, FOCFT (FW) lead project engineer at the Pax River ITF.

“It is a constant goal of flight testers to get a complete and thorough test plan finalised as early as practical,” Marge said.

“After countless working groups, hours and hours of authoring, compiling and technical editing, two days of technical review, and four hours of executive review, our 362-page masterpiece was done.”

The test plan holds a couple of responsibilities, according to Marge. First, it outlines how the team will conduct safe, efficient and effective flight test aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth. Second, it details the team’s training and workup requirements that are typically conducted many weeks prior to the actual test event.

The ITF team began FOCFT (FW) workups in the summer of 2018 with additional simulator runs at the full-motion Warton facility and at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division Manned Flight Simulator where they could add a control room with test engineers. The control room is a ‘huge risk mitigator’ Edgell said, because it allows constant monitoring.

“They see every aspect of how the aircraft is performing and coping to different situations,” he said.

“With thousands of parameters being monitored it is possible that they will identify emerging issues a long time before it becomes apparent to the pilot.”

As workups were underway, other personnel got to work ensuring the ITF team and their support equipment could integrate onto the ship; items like galley attire, flight deck clothing and hearing protection—all of which hold different requirements than that of a US Navy ship—to determining how to adapt U.S. equipment to UK power supply and even the currency personnel need to use on board had to be addressed.

Since June, the team has focused on live flying workups refreshing their skills on day and night field carrier landing practices, ski jump takeoffs and vertical landings.

A third FOCFT (FW) phase followed by operational testing is scheduled for 2019. Together, the tests will help the Ministry of Defence reach F-35B initial operating capability (maritime) in 2020.

As a Tier 1 partner in the F-35 program, a group of UK personnel have been embedded with the ITF at Pax River and Edwards Air Force Base, California, conducting flight tests since the program’s System Design and Demonstration phase.

To date, the U.K. is home to nine British-owned F-35B Lightnings located at RAF Marham with the Dambusters, or No. 617 Squadron—the RAF’s first F-35B squadron. The RAF is scheduled to declare initial operating capability later this year. In all, the RAF and RN are ‘programmed’ to purchase 138 F-35Bs over the lifetime of the programme.

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Are we nearly there yet? The anticipation is getting painful now 🙂

Daniele Mandelli

Sadly in the meantime the Sea King ASCS Mk7 is being retired and replaced by already in service Merlin’s which are needed for ASW and already in short supply. Same as is happening in the RAF right now with Tornado being replaced by in service Typhoons until enough F35 are in service. If that ever happens with MDP pending. Numbers continue to dwindle. We should be replacing assets with new assets not getting existing to cover the gap. And we should NEVER be gapping naval AEW. Crowsnest not ready. Otherwise wishing the ITF team every success and look forward to… Read more »


You are correct Daniele Mandelli. The tornado could continue for a few more years, but the OOSD means many crews have probably been reallocated to other squadrons? You are right about the dwindling fleets, and upgrade programmes on average, never include the whole fleet? So, already there are three types of Typhoon, tranch one, tranch two and talk of a third update, or have I got my wires crossed? Each time upgrading happens with UK equipment it is usually fewer airframes or tank hulls that receive them? Take CH2 upgrade; 227 vehicles are mentioned, getting on for a hundred fewer… Read more »


Sadly if push comes to shove, the F35’s APG-81 radar has the capability of being used as an AEW radar. However, a number of F35s will need to be aloft to ensure all round coverage plus they’ll be actively pinging giving away their position irrespective of it being a low probability of intercept radar.
Crowsnest needs to be fielded now and the Merlins that have been placed in long term storage need reactivating.

Daniele Mandelli

Davey others here have mentioned the remaining Merlin HM1 are already cannibilised for spares sadly.

David Flandry

The RN should look into an AEW version of the V-22. More endurance , somewhat higher altitude.


I really wouldn’t get hung up on it, first Crowsnest kit is scheduled for delivery next month followed by initial fitout to an aircraft next year with IOC the following year. That fits within the Carrier Strike schedule.

Daniele Mandelli

Sure Fedaykin. Thank you.

It’s a numbers thing for me. I’m sure the capability will work fine just a pity it’s not fixed wing.

Could Gannets use the QEC ski jump? ? Any left in the museum in Yeovilton?!


Interesting that you mention that. I was considering the flip-side of Crowsnest not being fixed wing earlier today. Being rotary rather than fixed wing means it can’t get as high but it also means that it can be hosted from a far greater range of vessels. Sadly an Albion has no hanger but if it had an RFA supply vessel in attendance, even a Bay if it had one of the prefab hangers installed but definitely a Fort, Tide or upcoming FSS, it could have its own Crowsnest cover if we had suffient numbers. Admittedly that would be a stretch… Read more »


I’ve a Gannet radar in the lock-up and there’s another in the Science museum.
Ready if needs be.
Joke aside don’t think crowsnest is too far off.

Daniele Mandelli

Small flights worth!


Helicopters proved invaluable in the following conflicts/disasters: Northern Ireland The Falklands Afganistan Iraq (twice!) Lebanon Sierra Leone intervention Suez Humanitarian relief (Hurricane Irma, Philippines, Ebola relief efforts + others) Need I go on? I would have thought that these conflicts would have stressed the value helicopters bring. Numbers are everything! You can never have enough, and this is a capability we should look to expand. We’ve lost well over 200 airframes since 2009, which is unacceptable when you factor in the variety of theatres the armed forces operate in. We need more ASW Merlins, dedicated AEW airframes, and an increase… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

I agree to all of this!

It’s a national scandal what’s happened to the forces since 2004 New Chapter but much of the public probably don’t have a clue and care even less.


Glad you agree! In my opinion, rotary wing numbers account for one of the greatest challenges facing the RN, after Manpower, Surface Fleet numbers, and branching out to accommodate UAVs, the sort of technology which would augment the capabilities of many of our vessels, primarily our patrol and survey ships. The only hope we have of growing the fleet in the short term is by retaining the Batch 1 Rivers, and in the long term, increasing the T31 order – but making sure that it is properly funded. I’ve argued before that keeping the Batch One Rivers is crucial. Let… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

Again I can only agree with all of that. ARMY: 100 plus Lynx and 100 plus Gazelle replaced by 34 Wildcat and 67 Apache, reducing to 50. You could argue the Watchkeeper would take some of Gazelles role if they could get it to work and train operators. Even the specialist Lynx AH9 of 657 AAC of the JSFAW at Odiham dedicated to SF have gone. No replacement. RN: Sea King HC4 retired. Replaced by Merlins from RAF. Robbing Peter to pay Paul. RAF receives 14 Chinook in compensation. The Defence Secretary Ainsworth, an utterly useless b****d, vowed in 2009… Read more »


(Chris H) Daniele – if I can ease your concern somewhat the RAF are not yet up to full delivery numbers of purchased Typhoons so more aircraft are yet to be delivered. As of June 2018 with 160 ordered 149 have been delivered. Later Tranche 2 and Tranche 3 airframes are earmarked for upgrade under Centurion and its all on schedule as described last June here: And of course the stored Tranche 1 aircraft that can’t be upgraded under Centurion because of airframe differences are being returned to operations as FGR4s and new Squadrons stood up. They will be… Read more »


Am 100% with this. Gov will hide behind ‘look at the new shiny F-35s on a lovely shiny new carrier’ to distract from gaps and lack of depth.

On a more positive note, to see those fabulous F-35s on our lovely shiny new carrier will in itself be a brilliant achievement.

Daniele Mandelli

Is there a date for the landing?


Unlikely that will be revealed, no point a small delay being spun in the press as some great disaster.

We will no doubt find out on the day the first landing happens.

Daniele Mandelli

Ahhh yes that’s a point.

Would be so bloody typical too.


Judging by their Twitter feed which just said, ‘Well this is it; the last time we will head into a port as a Ship without having had @thef35 on our flight deck’, I think we can assume it will be soon!


Some progress at last. Agree with comments that numbers of major kit are ever decreasing & we must be at critical mass by now. Spin increased capabilty all you want, but they can only be in one place at any time, leaving nothing else to deal with other threats. Tilt rotor aircraft would be a better AEW platform with greater ceiling than helicopters. Newer, better designs are now avaliable than the ageing Osprey V-22s. I’m praying that the QE now or imminently gets her Phalanx CIWS fitted & plans for a SAM system fit are made asap(e.g Sea Ceptor, RAM… Read more »