£20.50 (Hardback) | £12.99 (Kindle) | £8.79 (Paperback – May 2022)
Documentary filmmaker and anthropologist, Chris Terrill’s book, “How to Build an Aircraft Carrier” details the early years of HMS Queen Elizabeth. The author was onboard for her first voyage and sea trials in 2017 and the Westlant 18 deployment the following year.
Terrill has probably spent more time at sea onboard QNLZ than any other civilian, becoming intimately acquainted with the ship and many of the crew. He has now shot 3 documentary series on board. The book accompanies the first two series of “Britains Biggest Warship” but has more depth, detail and reflection than the more tightly edited pieces for TV. Series one was broadcast on BBC2 in April 2018 and follows her journey from the shipyard to commissioning. Series two, broadcast in October 2019 covered the first deployment of the ship to the US for the first trials of the F-35 jet. A third series was shot during the CSG21 deployment last year and will be shown in future.
In some ways, the title is misleading, although the byline gives a clue that the book might really be called “How to build a ship’s company”. This story is more about building the spirit of a ship than assembling steel and for this reason, this is a unique record of a massive warship generation project. (There are plenty of other resources covering the more technical aspects of the QEC carrier design and construction). The documentary and book successfully represents the 800 + ship’s company by focussing on a selected mix of personalities from a diverse cross-section of ranks, trades and backgrounds. The naval humour and in-jokes that help sustain morale through the frustrating periods is evident and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.
Critics might argue that Terrill is too close to the subject to be objective and the book is effectively a tribute to people who have become his friends. The MoD has some control over access but embedding a filmmaker on board was a calculated risk that has paid off. The result is not a puff piece but a credible and truthful account of an essentially happy ship that endures setbacks but overcomes comes them. Terrill’s natural empathy and admiration for the crew reflects the enduring naval ethos of all being in the same boat and having each other’s backs. This can’t be faked or stage-managed and unity of purpose is one of the most powerful threads in the book. It is also a healthy counterbalance to the negativity of mainstream media.
It’s now more than four and a half years since HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed for the first time. For those directly connected to the carrier project or that followed developments closely, there is now an element of nostalgia about events that have now passed into history. Most of the original cast of characters have moved on to other things including the star of the book, Captain Jerry Kyd who recently retired from the RN as a Vice Admiral. Kyd’s views on the need for the navy, future threats, and the role the QEC carriers will play remain especially pertinent.
Warts ‘n all
Inevitably there were problems with the ship as she started the long journey into service. Many observes are surprised that a brand new ship does not work perfectly but, unlike consumer products such as cars that have benefited from development through multiple prototypes before going on sale, for a warship the issues have to be resolved by live trials as they emerge. When everything is running fine it does not make for a great narrative so the book features these challenges in some detail.
The ship was supposed to have gone to sea in March 2018 but this was delayed by around 3 months, primarily because there were issues with the ship’s automated firefighting and safety systems. During sea trials, the ship hit some sort of debris with caused a propeller blade to become misaligned. The subsequent vibration rather fortunately revealed that the thrust blocks (that transfer the powerful propulsion forces generated by the propellors to the ship’s hull) were inadequate size, averting what could have been a potentially catastrophic failure at a later date. The issue was corrected during an extended stay in Invergordon. There were, of course, many other teething problems that were gradually rectified, most notably the handles on the new design of watertight door were causing injuries to sailors.
The biggest flaw with the QEC carriers’ construction appears to have been the poor quality of internal pipework. The book covers the crew quickly dealing with a hair-raising leak of aviation fuel into the engine spaces and the first case of flooding caused by a burst water pipe. There were a least 2 more serious internal floods caused by faulty pipework on QNLZ in 2019 and HMS PWLS in 2020 which have cost £millions to rectify. These teething problems aside, the carriers have largely been an engineering and project management success story, somewhat against the political and financial odds.
The tale of the “Mayport 6” which is detailed in the book is a classic case study in media distortion. When the ship arrived in Florida for the first stop on the Westlant 18 deployment a good run ashore beckoned. Of the hundreds that partied ashore, six of the ship’s company were arrested and tasered for minor offences that included jaywalking and drunkenness. In truth, it was more a case of over-zealous policing but there was widespread exaggerated reporting in UK media of this non-event. Tellingly, once the truth came out the six sailors escaped further punishment by the captain and only a sailor who returned late from shore leave was disciplined.
Inside the cockpit
Terrill spent some time talking to Cdr Nathan Gray, the RN test pilot that made the first F-35 landing on board QNLZ. There are some great insights into flying the Jet as well as a poignant back story about the sad death of flying instructor Jak London. Gray’s instructor died when they both ejected from a burning Harrier when he was in training back in 2002. The book also reveals that having landed the first jet on QNLZ, Gray subsequently was also the pilot first take off from the ship. For reasons of service sensitivities, RAF pilot Andy Edgell was supposed to make the first launch but his aircraft became unserviceable at the last minute.
The life of a test pilot is never predictable and on Gray’s final test flight of the programme, his Jet suffered a cockpit electrical failure, making for an interesting landing on the ship. There is also a great description of the first Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL) conducted by Pete Wilson a BAE Systems test pilot. SRVL development has been in abeyance but should resume on board HMS Prince of Wales later this year.
Mr Terrill should be commended for his commitment to recording this history and full marks those in the RN, ACA and ship’s company who made it possible. The book has been lovingly produced by a skilled writer and is not just an afterthought to the TV series. The people featured in the book, along with thousands of others, laid the foundations for the RN becoming a two-carrier navy and QNLZ completing her first operational deployment last year. Terrill’s story of CSG21 will be eagerly anticipated.