ABOARD THE HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH, Atlantic Ocean — The aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s £3 billion, 65,000-ton reentry into the world of carrier aviation, marked a historic moment Tuesday when Royal Navy Commander Nathan Gray and Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Andy Edgell touched down the first F-35B aircraft on her deck as she patrolled the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.
They were the first two British pilots to land on a British aircraft carrier in eight years and it marked the beginning of the Royal Navy’s developmental trials slated to last about two months.
The carrier, which was ordered in 2008 and commissioned late last year, and its first F-35B landing represent a new chapter in the United Kingdom naval history, one that in recent years has been marked by decline and false starts.
The ship, which is working with U.S. Marine Corps test pilots out of Naval Air Station Pax River, will return next year for more testing and to qualify its new pilots on Queen Elizabeth’s deck, but for now the goals are limited to understanding the wind and weather parameters that are safe for landing the F-35B.
“For me the importance of it is, once we get a flight envelope established with test pilots, within which we can safely operate, then I can start bringing my front-line guys in to start force-generating a warfighting capability,” said Royal Air Force Air Vice Marshal Harvey Smyth in an interview with embarked journalists.
In the U.K., the moment was one to celebrate for the government.
“The largest warship in British history is joining forces with the most advanced fighter jets on the planet,” said Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson in a statement.
“This marks a rebirth of our power to strike decisively from the seas anywhere in the world. The historic first landing on the deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth is a monumental moment in our country’s proud military history. It is also a statement of Britain’s determination to promote peace and prevent war.”
While the goals for this underway are somewhat humble, the significance of the moment shouldn’t be overlooked. As the U.S. Navy struggles to reset itself after nearly two decades of hard use in the war on terror, the re-emergence of British carrier aviation — the second carrier is slated to commission in 2020 — is a signal that needed relief is on the way.
“Given the rise in importance of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean, having two capable aircraft carriers from the Royal Navy, in addition to the French Charles de Gaulle, creates a situation where our aircraft carriers won’t have to share the load alone. And the fact that the aircraft are F-35Bs is a huge plus,” said Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer skipper and head of the defense consultancy The FerryBridge Group.
Britain has 16 of the 138 F-35Bs it plans to buy and still on track to deploy in 2021, the release said.
The next years will be jam-packed for Queen Elizabeth and her crew of more than 1,400 sailors and Marines, said Capt Jerry Kyd, who was also the commanding officer of the HMS Ark Royal when it launched the last Harrier eight years ago.
When it returns to Britain, the ship will get the Phalanx close-in weapons system installed, in addition to a new communications suite. Then it’s back to the United States for more testing.
“We will come back next September for operational testing,” Kyd said. “We’ll bring seven jets over and we’re going to start the operationalizing of the ship – learn how to fight the ship and the aircraft together, prove all those comms systems and prove all the gen-five elements.”
In 2020 bring Elizabeth and its escorts together in a group sail certification exercise off of Scotland with the U.S. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 embarked, which will then make the deployment with Queen Elizabeth.
But what’s in the immediate future is to stay on task, said Gray, who was the first pilot to touch down his F-35B on Elizabeth. For Gray, who is attached to the test squadron VX-23 at Pax River, Maryland, the time for focusing on his historic moment is later.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.