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.

24 COMMENTS

  1. 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 how this is portrayed on the BBC.

    • 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 units in what is a painfully small fleet?

    • 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.

    • 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.

      • 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 given that Crowsnest needs more than one airframe for 24/7 cover but were we to ever get an LPH replacement for Ocean, or for Albion/Bulwark replacement if they are replaced when the time comes, if it is a decent Canberra-class size it could probably host Crowsnest. Argus could also do it.

          We often focus on the negatives of a rotary platform for Crowsnest but does the positive of deployment flexibility have any merit in practice or is anything other than a carrier, i.e. an LPD or LPH, likely to be too close in to shore such that a Crowsnest would be too close to enemy AA systems and hence be a sitting duck?

        • 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.

    • 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 in Wildcat and HC4s – to replace the drop in numbers after the loss of the Sea King. There are still three former RAF Merlins somewhere (they had 28, but only 25 are in service with the RN), so it would be good if they could be brought into service. Remember, we used 3 Merlin HM2 for Ebola relief in Africa, surely HC4 would be a better alternative for this sort of work?

      Of course, this problem isn’t limited to the RN. The Army and Royal Air Force need to start planning for the replacement of the Gazelle and Puma, in sufficient numbers!

      • 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 them police UK waters with a skeleton crew, perhaps working in conjunction with the Border Force and Marines to operate the weaponry. Let the Batch 2 ships take over overseas patrols (Falklands, Caribbean, Med), to provide a constant presence in our areas of interest. Falklands for obvious reasons, the Caribbean for disaster relief and drug patrols, and the Med to show a bit of regular funnel in Gibraltar, work with NATO allies, and provide a response to the ongoing political issues in the area. Basing them in the Med would also free up Echo and Enterprise, allowing them to return to their primary roles.

          Meanwhile, helo numbers dwindle. The 2018 military formation statistics made for disappointing reading. It’s almost like the politicians have said “how many do you need to get the job done? Right. Well have half that number and see what you can do”.

          • 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 that the closure of RAF Cottesmore and disbandment of No 3 and 4 Squadrons of Harrier were needed to fund 22 Chinooks more urgently required! Chinook order slimmed down. Cottesmore still open now Kendrew Barracks for the army.

            Sea King of 771 NAS in SAR role. Disbanded.
            Merlin HM1 Fleet. 44 reduced to 30.
            Sea King ASCS. 11 or so? Retiring with no dedicated replacement.
            Lynx HM1 I recall we originally had 88. Replaced by 28 Wildcat for FAA.

            RAF:

            RAF Sea King SAR Force 22 and 202 Squadrons. 25 Helicopters no replacement. Not even a dedicated CSAR flight which is sorely needed.

            RAF has almost 70 Chinook which would be mightily impressive if only we could operate the majority. Lack of crews meaning no new squadron formed to operate the new additions save 28 (R) as an OCU.

            Puma Fleet. Reduced from the 40 odd we had and hanging by a thread.

            All this is just off memory so there may be errors there and I’ve probably forgotten other examples.

            Someone needs to write a very depressing book and issue copies to every defence journalist to show up politicians the next time they sprout their spin during MoD press briefings at what has happened to the military since 1991. Until 2004 New Chapter we still had some bulk despite previous rounds of cuts. Since then it’s got beyond silly.

            It is almost there is a hidden agenda here to weaken the UK military so much we need to merge with the EU.

    • (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:

      https://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/centurion-update-nears-service-with-raf-typhoons-450070/

      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 our front line QRA / Interceptor assets. Link to follow

      As far as I am aware we have some 30 Tornados left in service so we have more than enough Typhoons to resource that capability. It is quite staggering to think that Tornado is still a front line aircraft after 36 years service and has been in continual combat service since 1991. As the US journal ‘combat Aircraft’ observes:
      “You’d be hard pressed to find a combat jet in any air force around the world that has offered the kind of value for money that the Panavia Tornado GR4 has for the RAF. The very same airframes that entered service as GR1s way back in 1982 are still right at the leading edge of British air-power projection all these years later in Operation ‘Shader’ in the Middle East”

  2. 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.

  3. 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 or Aster15) as she’s poorly equipped compared with USN CVAs & LPHs.

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