Photo essay: HMS Queen Elizabeth Westlant 19 deployment – Part 2
After departing Halifax on 16th September, HMS Queen Elizabeth, HMS Dragon and RFA Tideforce headed south towards the Florida coast and were joined by HMS Northumberland. They exercised off the eastern seaboard of the US before the aircraft carrier arrived at Naval Station Mayport on 4th October.
Building on daytime trials conducted last year, on 19th September an MV-22 Osprey from HX-21 Squadron, based at NAS Patuxent River, made 22 night landings. The trial evaluated lighting, deck configuration, motion, and handling qualities using landing spots 2, 3 and 4. The V-22 has now effectively been cleared to operate from the QEC carriers and the US Marine Corps aircraft can support the ship 24 hours a day. If an HRAS-equipped auxiliary (Fleet Solid Support ship) is unavailable, the US Ospreys offer another method of delivering bulky cargo such as complete F-35 engines.
It should be noted that Westlant 19 is not an operational deployment and is just another step in the gradual generation of the UKCSG. The planned RN escort for the carrier on its first operational deployment will be at least double the size, consisting of a submarine, two destroyers, two frigates and two auxiliaries.
A second phase of rotary-wing development testing (DT-RW) was completed between 21 September – 2 October. A team from QinetiQ and the Aircraft Test and Evaluation Centre (ATEC), Boscombe Down oversaw an intense programme of 550 deck landings. 471 separate test points were executed by two frontline aircraft, one from 820 Naval Air Squadron (Merlin Mk2) and 845 Naval Air Squadron (Merlin Mk4) respectively.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is embarking stores and specialist personnel in Mayport to support F-35 operations which will commence shortly. The 3 UK-owned jets of 17 Squadron based at Edwards Air Force Base in California have flown to US Marine Air Corps Station Beaufort, South Carolina ready to embark on the carrier for the first time. Later this week 3 jets of 617 Squadron will fly from RAF Marham, crossing the Atlantic supported by air-air refuelling to land at Beaufort. The UK aircraft will then join the ship as she heads north and up to 4 more USMC jets will embark at some point.
Although much time will have been spent preparing in the simulator, most of these pilots have not operated from an aircraft carrier before and all will need to attain their carrier pilot qualification. The focus of F-35 flying during Westlant 18 was Development Trails (DT) but the jets will now begin the first Operational Trials phase (OT-1) learning to operate and fight the aircraft in a naval environment. In mid-November there will be a break from flying as the ship heads to Annapolis for a major diplomatic visit.