Aviation history made on board HMS Queen Elizabeth

Aviation history was made on board HMS Queen Elizabeth today when a jet made the first ever Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL). This procedure allows the F-35B to return to the ship carrying weapons and fuel, the weight of which would be too much for a vertical landing.

The aircraft touched down 755 feet back from the end of the carrier’s ski jump, the jet came to a complete standstill at the 580-foot mark. Using powerful brakes, the aircraft decelerates from about 40 knots to a standstill in around 175 feet.

Previously STOVL aircraft have conducted only vertical landings, hovering by the side of the ship before moving sideways over the deck and descending slowly. During SRVL the aircraft approaches the ship directly from behind at relatively low speed. A combination of thrust from its nozzle and lift-fan and lift created by air over the wings allows it to land with up to 7000lbs greater all up weight (UAW). Without SRVL capability, the F-35B would be forced to ditch some or all of the unused fuel and weapons when returning to the ship. Fuel is a precious resource and munitions are expensive. For example a single AIM-120D AMRAAM missile costs around £2.4 Million. With limited stocks and such a price tag, not something you want to casually jettison into the sea if unused.

Early critics of the STOVL version of the F-35 said SRVL could not be conducted safely. Their criticism was based on experience with the Harrier where this procedure was found to be too dangerous to be a feature of operational flying. The F-35 is a very different aircraft to the Harrier, with a great deal of automation that drastically reduces pilot workload. HMS Queen Elizabeth also has much more available deck space for the aircraft to roll along than the CVS.

Pete “wizzer” Wilson, BAE Systems test pilot who flew the aircraft making the first real SRVL. Working as part of the JSF programme for 17 years, in preparation he had already conducted 2000 SRVLs in the simulator at Warton in Lancashire.

This first SRVL was conducted in very benign conditions but will be more demanding at night on a wet and heaving while deck carrying weapons. Although early days, this is an encouraging start and validates years of work in the simulator. It also indicates the FOCFT programme is progressing fast and has not encountered any problems.

The UK is the only nation currently planning to use SRVL although the US Marine Corps is following developments closely as its aircraft are likely to be frequently embarked aboard the QEC carriers. USMC Test pilot, Major Michael Lippert is on board and commented “This is one of the main reasons we are here. It is of interest to the service at large and we are learning from each other. I will have the honour of conducting the first SRVL at sea for the US military so I’m excited. It’s what we all join up for – this is truly experimental test flying.”

The UK has now taken delivery of 16 of the 48 F-35Bs that are on order, with 9 at RAF Marham while the others are involved in training and developmental flying based in the United States. HMS Queen Elizabeth, escorted by HMS Monmouth and USS Lassen and replenished by USNS Supply, continues to operate off the US East Coast. The ship’s company can now begin to look forward to their visit to New York at the end of October.

The first SRVL adds some small additional risk to the test flying programme – note the Merlin airborne and ready to rescue the pilot in the event of an accident.