British F-35 LIGHTNING II combat aircraft have landed and taken off from the Royal Navy’s (RN) largest ever aircraft carrier, HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, for the first time, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced on 13 October.
Flown by RN and Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots, the current flight trials follow on from over 500 at-sea take-offs and landings made by US aircraft in developmental trials last year. These trials are aimed at ‘end-to-end’ testing of the aircraft and personnel, to ensure the aircraft are compatible with the carrier. The tests involve mission planning, arming the aircraft using the ship’s Highly Automated Weapon Handling System, flying missions and debriefing on completion. During this time, the aircraft carrier will be escorted by Type 45 destroyer HMS DRAGON, submarine hunter HMS NORTHUMBERLAND, tanker RFA TIDESFORCE and MERLIN helicopters from 814, 820 and 845 Naval Air Squadrons, WILDCATs from 815 squadron and Royal Marines from Lima Company, 42 Commando.
“The bringing together of the UK LIGHTNINGs on the first-in-class HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH paves the way for the world’s most up to date, fully integrated carrier force,” commented British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.
The LIGHTNING II is the first jet to combine radar-evading stealth technology with supersonic speed and the ability to land vertically. Given its ability to conduct missions from both land and sea, the aircraft lie at the core of the ‘carrier strike’ capability. The UK currently owns 18 aircraft, with an additional order placed for 30 jets.
“Bringing our own LIGHTNINGs onboard HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH for the first time gives us the opportunity to conduct critical operational testing. With the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force operating so closely together, these are incredibly exciting times for embarked Combat Air,” added Air Officer Commanding No 1 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Harvey Smyth.
The UK will declare initial operating capability for Carrier Strike by the end of 2020, with the first operational deployment for HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, 617 Squadron and a US Marine Corps LIGHTNING squadron due to take place the following year.