Simply put, HMS Queen Elizabeth is in the United States because it’s the best place to conduct F-35 trials from her flight deck.
Four F-35B pilots are completing final training in the US ahead of flying out to HMS Queen Elizabeth later in the month.
Over the course of the following weeks, the four pilots will conduct around 500 take offs and landings. The Royal Navy also confirmed that 200 engineers and experts from the F-35 Integrated Test Force based at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in the United States will embark on HMS Queen Elizabeth to monitor the F-35 trails, including how it performs in varying sea states.
It is understood that the trials support staff will be joined by two 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 and these are based in the United States where they are contributing to the trials and development programme. 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.
“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.