HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed from Portsmouth today for around six weeks or more. During this voyage, she will conduct Operational Sea Training and head into the Eastern Atlantic to commence what will be the first of many flying trials, beginning with the Merlin helicopter.
Since commissioning on 7th December, the ship has been alongside conducting further engineering work and the minor leak on the stern seal that was the cause of such media hysteria before Christmas has been remedied. The Aircraft Carrier Alliance and their contractors are expected to continue final snagging work on the ship for up to 6 months beyond the commissioning date.
The ship had been scheduled to depart on the 30th January but sailing had to be delyed until today. Following a routine full electrical failure test, as a computer system came back online it activated the hangar sprinkler system and water pumps in the firemain system. No serious damage was done and the software fault was remedied. With a known defect in the firefighting system, Captain Kydd sensibly decided to postpone sailing. Unfortunately, a video of the sprinkler activation was passed to the media, who did not miss another opportunity to exaggerate further minor problems with QE. Defects like this are normal on complex warships the world over, but issues with this particular ship attract extraordinary attention.
While still in Portsmouth, a Merlin Mk2, ‘Dolphin 14’ from 820 Naval Air Squadron landed on board for two days in mid-January to conduct Sea Acceptance Trials (Air) which tested that the systems on the flight deck and in the hangar designed to support embarked were working correctly. The aircraft was connected to electrical supplies and the telebrief system which allows non-wireless communication with the ship before take off. Refuelling arrangements were also tested and firefighting and rescue crews took the opportunity to rehearse emergency drills, damage control and fuel spillage procedures with a real aircraft. Taken below the Merlin was lashed down in the mid-section of the hangar with the fire-curtains lowered. This completion of this short trial gives confidence that the ship is ready and safe to operate aircraft at sea.
A specialist team from FOST (Flag Officer Sea Training) has been on board for some time starting to compile the unique Queen Elizabeth class training syllabus for a new class of ship that is very much larger than anything else there’s been in the fleet for a long time. For the first 2 weeks, the ship is likely to operate in the Western Approaches as the FOST staff focus on ensuring the ship’s company is fully competent in safety and survival procedures. Fire, flood, casualty and evacuation exercises are likely to be the main focus, the warfare elements that usually comprise a large part of a FOST period will be conducted at a later date. Further sea training periods are scheduled for next year and beyond as more aircraft are embarked and the ship becomes more ‘warlike’, before achieving initial operating capability in 2020.
With sea training completed, the focus will be on conducting First of Class Rotary Wing (FOCRW) trials. The Air Test and Evaluation Collaboration (ATEC) is an MoD-QinetiQ partnership based at MoD Boscombe Down which will provide test pilots, two Chinooks and two Merlin Mk2s. The ship and the aircraft are fitted with sensors and instruments to determine the sea states, roll, pitch and wind limits within which it is safe to fy from the Queen Elizabeth class. Data from these repetitive trials will be used to compile the Ship Helicopter Operating Limitations (SHOL) clearances. Every aircraft type has to be tested and certified for each class of ship it may fly from, to ensure the limits of safe operation are understood. (First of class, RFA Tidespring recently conducted SHOL trials with a Merlin). In time, the QEC will be required to conduct trials with other types including Wildcat, Apache and the F-35B Lightning II (in late 2018). It should be assumed that such a stable ship with a huge flight deck will have higher tolerances for operating helicopters in more extreme conditions than the smaller frigates or auxiliaries. The twin-island design of the QEC is also intended to reduce air turbulence across the deck. The Eastern Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay should provide a variety of testing weather conditions for flying and test the ship in higher sea states than have been experienced so far. A full Merlin Squadron (820 NAS) will embark for the first time in mid-2018.
While trials are being conducted with the Merlin MK2s, the ship will also be supported by Comando Helicopter Force Mk3s from 845 NAS. The aircraft will provide logistic support for QE, known as Maritime Intra Theatre Lift (MITL), the movement of passengers, mail and cargo between land and ships at sea. They will also provide safety back up for the trials aircraft and practice Deployed Search and Rescue (DSAR) operations. When eventually deployed operationally it is planned the QEC will have their own Joint Personnel Recovery (JPR) capability. This will comprise a unit of Royal Marines delivered by the Mk3/4s to rescue pilots and sensitive equipment, should an aircraft go down and personnel be missing, detained or captured in hostile environments. This highly classified nature of the F-35 makes it especially important it does not fall into the wrong hands. One of the first newly upgraded Mk 4 aircraft to be delivered has already been trialled with door-mounted heavy machine guns for use in this role. The 845 NAS aircraft embarked on this trip are likely to conduct preparatory work for the JPR role. The long-term plan is that 845 NAS will embark 4 Merlin HC4 helicopters on the operational QEC carrier to support the Special Purpose Task Group (SPTG). This is a Royal Marine company of up to 200 men who will act as a high readiness, rapid reaction force that can be deployed from the carrier short notice.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is expected to arrive Gibraltar on 9th February for a 3-day visit. The Rock is a vital staging point and logistical support hub with connections to the Royal Navy going back centuries. QE can expect a big welcome in Gibraltar and will provide an iconic photo opportunity. The visit will also be a helpful reminder to the Spanish they would do better to improve relations with post-Brexit Britain, instead of making repeated futile incursions into the waters of the territory. There are considerable numbers of junior sailors for whom QE is their first ship, and this will be their first overseas run-ashore. Few sailors have a bad word to say about Gib and it’s sure to be memorable for everyone. Expect the aircraft carriers to be regular visitors to the base for many decades to come.
- HMS Queen Elizabeth begins preparations for rotary wing trials (Naval Technology)
- Allied joint doctrine for recovery of personnel in a hostile environment (NATO publication)
- The cycle of Spanish incursions into Gibraltar waters (Save the Royal Navy – 2015)