Home » Aviation » First F-35Bs Operate off of HMS Queen Elizabeth as U.K. Works Toward a Native Carrier Strike Group

First F-35Bs Operate off of HMS Queen Elizabeth as U.K. Works Toward a Native Carrier Strike Group

Cmdr. Nathan Gray RN, Makes the first ever F-35B Lightning II jet take off from HMS Queen Elizabeth on Sept. 25, 2018. Royal Navy Photo

ABOARD HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, OFF THE COAST OF NEW JERSEY — The Royal Navy took the next step to reestablishing its own carrier force this week when two F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters landed on the deck of its new carrier for the first time .

Flying a test F-35B from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., Royal Navy Cmdr. Nathan Gray touched down on HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) on Tuesday to start two months of flight tests aboard the 70,000-ton carrier. Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Andy Edgell landed a second F-35B shortly afterwards.

Gray, who has been training with the U.S.-based F-35 Integrated Test Force (ITF) at Pax, said the landing was just like any other test flight in a string of others ashore.

“Coming into land for the first time on Tuesday, the aircraft handled as expected; the interaction between the aircraft and the ship is exactly as expected, as we’ve simulated thousands and thousands of times before and landed onboard,” he said. “There were no surprises.”

While Gray said his day felt routine, for the Royal Navy the first landing of an F-35 on Queen Elizabeth was anything but normal.

“We are enjoying getting back into the big time, and this is one of those big steps forward on that ladder,” Rear Adm. Keith Blount, the Royal Navy’s Assistant Chief of Naval Staff for Aviation, Amphibious Capability and Carrier told a group of American defense trade reporters embarked on the carrier on Thursday.

“When you see that jet out there today, having landed on the ship, taking off from the ship, we’re taking big steps back into that game again. And it’s hugely exciting, and it should be reassuring to those folks back home and indeed on this side of the Atlantic.”

Cmdr. Nathan Gray RN, gives the thumbs up after making the first ever F-35B Lightning II jet vertical landing onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth on Sept. 25, 2018. Royal Navy Photo

Thursday’s landing of the two F-35s is the first time the Royal Navy has operated fixed-wing aviation off a carrier deck since the U.K. flew the last sortie of AV-8B Harriers off the now-decommissioned HMS Ark Royal (R07) in 2011. The introduction of the carrier and sister-ship Prince of Wales (R09) is set to expand the capabilities of the U.K. into a more expeditionary force that could have the same presence effect of a U.S. carrier strike group.

“I think the awakening in the political class that this sends a political message when she sails is important, and that’s new to us,” ship commander Capt. Jerry Kyd said Thursday.

While U.K. power projection is the aim in the long term, the short-term goals for testing is to establish the baseline for F-35 ahead of more complex operational testing off the East Coast next year.

The work aboard Elizabeth pairs the two F-35s with a four test pilots – a Royal Navy pilot and a Royal Air Force pilot, a U.S. Marine and a civilian test pilot. On Thursday, USNI observed the two fighters with the ITF assigned to the “Salty Dogs” of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 both landing and taking off of Elizabeth’s ski-jump bow.

U.K. and U.S. pilots have been training at Pax River on a mockup of the hull’s ski-jump ramp, which breaks with the straight line of U.S. amphibious assault ships that also operate the F-35B.

Queen Elizabeth obviously has a the ski-jump, which provides some performance benefits, and obviously the U.K. has long been a fan of that, as is another nation that’s a partner in the F-35 program, Italy,” Marine Maj. Michael Lippert told reporters on Thursday.

U.S. Marines have been closely married with the U.K. during the testing period. A Marine F-35B squadron will join the Royal Navy strike group on its first operational deployment in 2021 as part of the air group.

“The U.K. and the U.S. Marine Corps have a long history. We’ve done joint operations with Harriers, we’ve had exchange programs for a very long time, and for the past several years the U.K. has had the foresight to have exchange programs with several of their officers and some of their enlisted folks on exchange with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, and that has paid huge dividends,” Lippert said. “It’s wildly apparent that they’re wholly prepared for this.”

Royal Air Force Sqn Ldr Andrew “Gary” Edgell, test pilot at the F-35 Pax River Integrated Test Force, performs a ski jump Aug. 13, 2018. US Navy Photo

In addition to the testing of the F-35s aboard Elizabeth, the deployment will help the Royal Navy relearn how to operate carrier strike groups at sea.

Following the decision to take Harriers off British ships in 2011, the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force maintained exchange programs with the U.S. to keep at least some U.K. sailors familiar with the process, commanding officer Kyd told reporters on Thursday.

“We’ve been really lucky that we’ve cycled a lot of the crew through U.S. carriers in the last five years. Several hundred of my ship’s company have been deployed on operations bombing ISIS, and the last four or five years the pilots, the deckhands, chefs and specialists, my officers of the watch, my navigator,” Kyd said.
“To keep that pilot light alive has been well managed, so it’s not like we’re starting at ground zero at any stretch of the imagination.”

Kyd was the commander of Ark Royal for the last deployment, and other sailors from that final deployment are now on Elizabeth too. While there are some differences, the basics are still the same.

“In terms of operating the ship, it’s quite similar to the pocket aircraft carriers we had, it’s just the deck is four times the size,” he said.
“For me, the similarities are sufficient that it, in fact, feels quite normal out here.”

  • muzzleloader

    Judging from the lack of bow wave, it looks like the QE was almost stationary for the launch.

    • RunningBear

      ….in the parlance at dead stop!
      Fly Navy

    • RobM1981

      I noted the same thing.

  • El_Sid

    BZ to all concerned – this day has been a long time coming. The collaboration between the RN and USN has been unprecedented to get this far, as the article hints at. There’s some video on Twitter courtesy of 1SL, @AdmPhilipJones

    Small point @Sam – last plane off Ark Royal was not an AV-8B (which UK never had) but a Harrier GR9.

  • Duane

    Ironically, the much maligned QE carriers will deploy with an air wing that is far superior to that of any our own CVNs will deploy for the foreseeable future, with up to 4 squadrons of F-35Bs … while our CVNs will still be saddled with at least two squadrons of outmoded Super Hornets for many years to come.

    Hoping our future Navy leaders will wake up and recognize that it is a total waste to buy any more Super Hornets, and go exclusively with F-35s, just as the US AF has already decided to do, saying “to heck with that” on buying ANY more fourth gen fighters.

    • muzzleloader

      Talk about hyperbole!
      In the first place, it will be 2024 before the Brits have two squadrons of 24 Lightenings.
      The RN is very constrained in the purchasing rate, especially in 2020.
      After the initial 24, the final purchase number is “too far away to say”
      This is according to Captain Kyd, QE’s CO.
      It will be a decade before the RN will have anything approaching 48, if then.
      Secondly, the F-18 SH is still one of the worlds most potent war planes, and having 24 of them in an airwing plus a squadron of SH jammers and you are looking at an air wing of 60 strong world class war planes that no other nation can match.
      Thirdly, the US has 10 carrier battle groups, the UK will have 1.
      Will the QE battle group be a formidable force? Absolutely.
      Will they equal an American CBG?

      • Duane

        No hyperbole at all. The Brits DO plan to deploy 4 squadrons of F-35B on the QE. Initially, just as I wrote above, it will be a combination of two USMC squadrons and two RN/RAF squadrons of F-35B. Eventually as the Brits acquire more F-35s, they will field more of their own squadrons. Long term it is likely that the USMC will continue to co-deploy on the Brit carriers.

        The actual point I made, that you totally whiffed on, is that the QE class carriers WILL have the world’s most capable and lethal air wing, better than on any US CVN, because it will feature 4 squadrons of 5th gen fighters, compared to only 2 squadrons on our CVNs.

        • Toodle Lou

          P.S. Most CVW’s have at least three Super Hornet squadrons and most have four.

          • Duane

            Yup – exactly my point. Super Hornets are obsolete compared to F-35s, erego the Brit carriers will deploy far superior air wings to what our CVNs carry now and in the foreseeable future.

        • muzzleloader

          I “whiffed” nothing, because you totally missed my point.
          Toodle Lou’s post below makes it very well.

          • Duane

            Yes, you totally and completely whiffed, as usual … as did the guy you cite.

            Super Hornets are yesterday’s fighters, last century’s fighters, vastly inferior to F-35s (to the tune of being on the bad side of a 24:1 kill ratio in AF Red Flag,and in Marine AA exercises, the F-35B is undefeated for all time against all fourth gens).

          • muzzleloader

            I totally whiffed as usual?
            Tell me Dianne, are you this arrogant and condescending with people who you actually know?

        • The RN currently plans to deploy just 1 squadron of F-35B’s on their carriers. While I agree that that the Lighting completely outclasses the Super Hornet, a single 5th gen fighter squadron is not “the world’s most capable and lethal air wing” by any stretch of the imagination – especially given that right now the USN could supplement its airwings with small numbers of F-35B’s and F-35C’s if needed while the RN’s airwings are not yet operational.

          • Secundius

            That’s because the RN only has 18 F-35B’s total, including the ones supplied to the RAF…

    • Toodle Lou

      So the QE Wing will have tankers, EW Attack aircraft, and a dedicated command and control aircraft like the E2D?

      There’s more the a CVN Air Wing than fighters, and those other assets (which will in the very near future include drones) bring much other capabilities other than attack.

      And lets see how much legs the F35B will have compared to a Super Hornet.

      • Duane

        CVNs don’t have tankers either. Not today. And even when CVNs used to have tankers, they were and remain grossly inferior to land based tankers, which can tank entire squadrons of aircraft from an unlimited range, while carrier based tankers can only top off a couple of fighters and from only very short range (500 nm or less).

        The F-35 has superior ECM to anything carried on any fourth gen aircraft, including the Growler, and it is carried internally, no external pod needed. So every single one of the four squadrons of F-35 will be a superior ECM equipped fighter.

        The F-35 is a command and control aircraft too, in case you didn’t notice … it is the very backbone of the networked NIFCCA Naval force. The F-35 has by far the world’s best airborne sensors, and is fully networked with both Link 16 and MADL (which no other aircraft has), and is designed to be the eyes and ears of the naval fleet.

        The legs of a F-35B are longer than a Super Hornet … 430 nm effective combat range with full internal weaps load vs. 390 nm for a SH with only an AA weaps load and no external ECM pod (much less if the wing hard points are loaded up with ground attack weapons or cruise missiles).

        In every possible way an F-35 is vastly superior to any fourth gen including the SH.

      • El_Sid

        They have dedicated command and control in the form of Crowsnest, and F-35 can handle EW. The Falklands war was won without tankers, although obviously it would be nice, and presumably F-35 will get a buddy store.

        Also, you can’t expect the RN to follow exactly the same model as the USN, we have to have something that works for us. We’re coming from operating baby Harrier carriers don’t forget. Obviously that starts with the fact that we have 1/7 of the economy of the US, but the nature of our obligations and threats are different too. Starting with the fact that we’re not looking to fight China – realistically the worst-case scenarios are the Kusnetsov and the Gulf. But there’s doctrinal differences as well – we’ve always preferred a distributed approach to Wild Weaseling rather than dedicated aircraft for instance, and the F-35 fits that.

        Sure, there’s all sorts of things that we would love to have if there was more money, but operating two carriers with 100% 5th-gen airwing is more than most countries will ever manage. You also want to look at things like the ability to support a carrier group – the UK has as much auxiliary shipping as the rest of Europe put together.

  • Ed L

    Outside box thinker here. Curious on how the A-29 would do operating off the QE Carriers. Yup just thinking out of the box Used to get paid by the Navy to do that.

    • El_Sid

      Not that out of the box – British bloggers have had plenty of time to play fantasy airwings for QNLZ and Tucano is one of the usual suspects, not least because the RAF have used the original version as a trainer for the last 30 years. And of course Frogfoot on the Kusnetsov is a clear precedent. QNLZ is 920′ long, so one issue is always going to be how much payload you can lift, even with the help of the skijump. But the basic problem is that MoD have no enthusiasm for adding any more aircraft types than they have to, and There Is No Money for that (qv how Harrier got tossed). But aside from that, there is also a doctrinal aspect, favouring jacks-of-all-trades rather than specialist aircraft, qv how the RAF didn’t join the Germans in having dedicated Wild Weasel Tornado, preferring for the whole fleet to carry ALARM.

      If Britain wanted a COIN aircraft, then they would have a land-based one first.

      However the favourite Doolittle-style option for QNLZ is the C-295, primarily for tanking, COD and a little light ASuW – Airbus are working on a super-STOL version already, also on an AEW version. But any available budget is going on buying – or rather not cutting – F-35’s for the next 5-10 years. We’d rather have a few more Merlins beyond that I suspect.

      • RobM1981

        Can the C-295 be made rugged enough for carrier landings? Also, is the QNLZ’s deck strong enough for the trap?

        • El_Sid

          Even the standard C-295 can land in the length of the QNLZ deck, so one would assume that the XTOL version would be able to do so without arrestors, although QNLZ was designed to be able to switch to CATOBAR, there was space left under the deck for catapults etc but realistically it would probably cost too much to convert her at this stage.

          The kind of people who do fantasy airwings aren’t engineers, there’s no information in the public domain on this kind of thing, but C-295’s are pretty tough. A bigger problem is more likely the marinisation of something that’s not really designed for the sea.

          Anyway, it’s all hypothetical, There Is No Money.

          • RobM1981

            Great reply.

          • El_Sid

            Ach, I meant to put an “almost” in the landing – official landing distance is just a tad more than QE, it would probably end up the top of the skijump if it got it exactly right. It’s kinda like landing a Herc, which has been done but not repeated. I don’t think there’s any numbers in the public domain yet on the XTOL version, but one assumes it would be shorter.

          • RobM1981

            Yes, but the real question is: can we launch and recover B-25’s?


          • Secundius

            C-295 might be able to land on the “QE”, but it won’t be able to take-off the “QE”. Ramp Angle of 12* is Too Steep for the Wheelbase Length of the C-295. Plane would get Stuck make the attempt…

  • KMC2

    Actually seeing the F-35 on the deck of the QE vs on the LHAs brings home just how much more deck space there is. No real surprise after seeing the numbers and deck plan overviews, just brings it into reality.

    • El_Sid

      One for the context of the carrier debate in the US, which tends to be cast in terms of either full-fat CVN or minor-derivative-of-LHA, with nothing in between.

      Particularly now that the width of the Panama canal is not now a constraint in the same way it was for Wasp/America, the way could be open to something more QLNZ/Midway sized?

      • KMC2

        While it is a big gap and would be nice, in the real budget constrained world it’s just not going to happen.

        Would have been nice to see the Brits order 3 instead of 2 to help maintain one delpolyed group. Likewise, in my amateur opinion it was a mistake not to specify a third aviation focused America class to maintain the deployment of one light strike group. In combination with the 3-4 deployed CVN groups and what could have been 1 LHA F-35B group and 1 QE F-35B strike group, would have provided for serious presence.

        Additionally the slower pace of the QE and LHA groups would allow for the further use of FFGx pickets in place of additional DDGs. But I’m sitting on my couch.

        • El_Sid

          The budget thing isn’t that different – we had to pay all sorts of fixed costs that the USN has long since paid, but two QECs cost $8bn and three Americas cost $10.1bn. Serial production costs aren’t that different, but you get a lot of option value from having a bigger ship even if it had a LHA airgroup to start with – ships are slow to build, planes are quick.

          There’s a slightly different, more defensive, mentality when you don’t have a big fleet of carriers – less about deployed than deployable, the scars of the Falklands run deep. The target is 200 days deployable for each, and don’t forget that the UK has generally shorter transit times to its areas of interest than the US.

          • KMC2

            The budget is clearly at play. The navy still has to replace the Tarawa class boats to maintain the amphibious capability of the “gator navy”. Where would the money for a Goldilocks CV-L for the US based off of a $4bil per copy come from. It either has to come from the CVN budget (which in turn would only drive CVN costs up per unit basis) or another program which is not going to happen with all the political barreling.

    • Secundius

      Yeah, but “QE’s” Flight Deck is also ~240-feet across, compared to the LHA’s modest 106-feet across…

  • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

    About time.

  • disqus_CbFK3MPhJu

    cut it in half, add 200′, stuff 2 reactors in it, a couple/4 cats, and they
    may actually have something.

  • ChrisLongski

    Let’s hope this generation of UK carriers has ‘longer legs’ than the carriers they operated during WWII and thereafter.

    • E1 Kabong

      Something wrong with the previous carriers?

      • ChrisLongski

        Yeah — they are all retired…

        • E1 Kabong


          That wasn’t your statement.

          Try harder to deflect.

          How’d things work out in the Falklands?

          • ChrisLongski

            Those carriers are all retired…

          • E1 Kabong

            Answer the question………….

  • b2

    -You know I think that ship is one of the homeliest i’ve ever seen; it looks like a commerical cargo carrier. iIremeber the angled deck, Ark Royal that flew Phantoms and Buccaneers… This is progress? Rule Brittania…not

    -Since when are o2 mask aircraft jet pilots having beards? Might look cool but not smart.. but of course w/OBOGS it ain’t 100% o2 like LOX..bad seal though.

    -Re another F-35B first- spin, spin, spin…..

    • E1 Kabong

      “-Since when are o2 mask aircraft jet pilots having beards? Might look cool but not smart.. but of course w/OBOGS it ain’t 100% o2 like LOX..bad seal though.”?

      Clearly, you’ve never read up on the pilots of the Fleet Air Arm.

      Those Sea Harrier pilots seemed to have done well in the Falklands…

  • Chesapeakeguy

    Why the two islands on this ship? Anyone know why they Brits pursued that?

    • Secundius

      The Aft Island is a Dedicated Flight Operation Center, while the Fore Island is for just running the Ship…

      • Chesapeakeguy

        Good to know. Thanks..

    • El_Sid

      To make it easy for ship spotters!

      It’s mostly about survivability. It’s driven by having the engines separate, which in turn means the funnels come up through the superstructure at a distance from one another. So either you have one long island, or two small ones – one early design from BAE had an elevator in the middle of a long island.

      It’s helpful to drive the ship from for’ard, whereas FLYCO wants to be further aft, so that kinda works – and there’s redundancy so that you can work planes from the for’ard island and drive the ship from the aft one.

      Savetheroyalnavy-dot-org has done a nice article recently talking about some of the early design choices.

      • Chesapeakeguy

        I appreciate the info.

    • ChrisLongski

      One is for navigation and ship operations, the other is for aviation.

      • Chesapeakeguy

        Thanks for that..

    • PolicyWonk

      The islands can also serve as backup for the other, if one is wiped out due to battle damage, etc.

  • ChrisLongski

    As the RN ascends in capability, the UK society is being undermined, the culture watered down to PC irrelevancy, and there is a silence in the culture with respect to all this happening.

  • Merlin Dorfman

    So let’s see if I have this straight…RN has been out of the aircraft carrier business for almost ten years, but during that time RN pilots, ground crew, and ship’s complement have served aboard USN carriers, including in combat.
    The first two F-35s aboard the new carrier were flown by an RN and an RAF pilot. Will this continue operationally, i.e., both RN and RAF pilots will serve aboard the carrier?

    • El_Sid

      1st para – yes. Also happened with the ex-Nimrod crews whilst the politicians were debating to buy P-8.

      2nd para – yep, it’s a development of Joint Force Harrier which saw Sea Harriers and RAF mud-movers operating within a single structure. There was always a certain amount of chafing, not least over the RAF’s harmony requirements, but the UK doesn’t really have much choice other than merging the FAA into the RAF, or allocating all F-35 activity, including on land, to the FAA. Politically the joint force is the least unpalatable.

      So the first operational squadron is RAF 617 Sqn – the Dambusters – followed by 809 NAS. They’ll rotate through the carrier equally.

      • Merlin Dorfman

        Interesting–thanks for the response.
        The new RN carriers must have a lot of similarity to USN CVNs in both design and operation for this to work. (In fact I have to wonder where the UK got naval architects with the knowledge and experience to design the two new ships.) Can you imagine, for instance, political considerations aside, exchanges of pilots, ground crew, and ships complement between the US and Japan in the 1930s? The ships, crew functions, and operational philosophy were so different that previous experience would be useless and no worth while lessons could be brought back from the exchange.

        • El_Sid

          Don’t forget that at the time QNLZ was laid down, Thales’ predecessors had worked on the world’s most recent “proper”carrier design – the de Gaulle. If anything, by your logic the US could have done with some help from the Europeans on Ford…

          It’s been tough, but one could argue that the UK has done an amazing job in the face of a difficult budget environment in retaining ship design skills. Funding 15 years of design studies on the Type 26 is one way… ;-/ Whereas the US has been enjoying the fruits of the long production run of the Burke, but one fears a bit for the atrophying of the skills needed to design complex warships such as the Burke/Tico replacement.

          Yes, the cooperation is remarkable – it rather gives the lie to headlines about politicians downgrading the Special Relationship – but obviously sharing the same hardware obviously helps. Particularly now that it is actually the same hardware and not just something that looks the same. Not so much a CVN, the best way to look at QNLZ is as a super-LHA – the relationship between RN and USMC is exceptionally close. Particularly given the constraints of the -B bomb bays, which Britain will be designing all its complex weapons around from now on. You can imagine the USMC preferring to use something like SPEAR 3 once it’s ready.

          • Merlin Dorfman

            Thanks again…design studies are great but are “open loop”–if the design is never built there is no opportunity to find and resolve the design problems, and they accumulate until something is finally built. But if the lessons learned on the “DeGaulle” were available to the Brits that would be a big help.

  • vetww2

    That ramp take-off added about 100 miles to the F35s range, and we still don’t get it. A similar ramp could be retrofitted to any of our cariers for less than the difference in fuel cost for one year of operation.

    • Secundius

      “IF” I had to venture a guess, it would be “Allocated Space”! A ~12* Ski-Jump Ramp would take up to two or three Helicopter Spaces on a LHA/LHD, limiting Parking Spaces for Helicopters, MV-22’s and F-35B’s. Reducing the size of Air Assets carried…

      • vetww2

        Not so, Take a look at Spain’s 16,000 ton “PrincIpe” or the Brit’s Q.E. Very little space needed. No room on our 100,000+ ton behemouths? Nonsense.
        Maybe you don’t remember the Navy’s resistance to a canted deck, because the Brits invented it. We built 2 carriers, without it, until it was rammed down their throats by a very savvy SECNAV.
        We may have a bunch of ships, but the designs are antiqiated, only improved by a lot of great high tech gear.
        For example, we do not have a single ship designed to carry and service LCACs. There are no Ice breakers that can do a job as well as the smallest class that the Russkies have, let alone their big nuc powered class. WE have no fast, agile hydrofoils. We laud the Norwegian SKJOLD, Surface Effect Ship which we invented, in 1965, then dumped for our wonderfully incompetant LCSs We have a great looking destroyer that has little capability, and will capsize in a hard turn, in SS4. We do not have a mother ship for the small, non nuc subs coming. Our LHA/LPD types are optimized for an assault landing, a scenario not likely to be required,
        I hate being such a curmudgeon, but it has gotten to me. I had to get it out, because at my age, I don’t even buy green bananas.
        But “Anchors Aweigh”, we just want more, bigger, and less useful, “Admiral Makers.”

        • Secundius

          Spain went a different direction in designing the “Princlpe”! Instead of a Flat Horizontal Flight Deck with a Ski-Jump Ramp attached to the Bow. Spain’s Design was a angled Flight Deck that started from the Aft Elevator and ran the length of the Flight Deck to the Bow to form a 12* Ski-jump. One continuous angle from Stern to Bow, the looked seamless to the Naked Eye…

          • old guy

            My name is welded in the bottom of the hull of Princepe. Incidentally, it was designed as a 15,000 ton ship, but over thick hull and deck plates, delivered, increased displacement by almost 1.000 tons