HMS Queen Elizabeth – preparing to operate fast jets

HMS Queen Elizabeth is currently in Portsmouth with the islands encased in scaffolding and tents covering parts of the flight deck. After commissioning, and having spent a few weeks at sea, some have wondered why the ship is alongside for so long and needs further engineering work. Here we examine how the ship is being readied for the critical next phase of her introduction into service.

There is an understandable impatience to see HMS Queen Elizabeth operating her F-35B Lightning II aircraft. There is a frequently repeated myth that the RN has an “aircraft carrier with no aircraft”, when in fact the ship is still being tested and brought through the normal phases needed to safely operate aircraft. It should be noted that HMS Queen Elizabeth is very much in line with the historical average for previous RN aircraft carriers which have typically taken around a year between initial sea trials and the first fixed-wing aircraft landing on the ship.

After returning from rotary wing trials at the end of February, QE is now part way through a 13-week Capability Insertion Period (CIP). When the ship first sailed from Rosyth in June 2017, it was always planned that some of her equipment and systems would be fitted subsequently. During the time alongside between the sea trials phases, additional equipment to support rotary wing, and now fixed-wing aircraft is being added. The hotly anticipated next phase of trials will see F-35 aircraft land on board for the first time which demands specific additional equipment. When the ship was originally designed in the early 2000s, some of the capabilities she requires had not even been conceived, and some were still under development when the ship completed initial construction.

Fixed-wing aircraft landing aids are now being fitted, the most important of which is the US-developed AN/SPN-41/41A Instrument Carrier Landing System (ICLS). This is an electronic landing aid that broadcasts flight path data to the approaching aircraft which the pilot can see in the Head-Up Display. The ICLS comprises 2 antennas; the azimuth transmitter which will be installed on a sponson at the stern of the ship (slightly to port and below the catwalk), the elevation transmitter will be installed on the rear of the aft island.

In order to aid Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL), QinetiQ has developed a system of lights, known as the Bedford Array, that will be embedded in the centreline of the flight deck which will guide pilots when landing the F-35B while maintaining forward speed. This has been in development for some years and was proven using a Harrier test aircraft, with a total of 230 SRVL approaches flown on board the French carrier Charles De Gaulle in 2007 and HMS Illustrious in 2009. The Bedford Array is not being added to HMS Queen Elizabeth at this time, though it will be installed on HMS Prince of Wales, initially as a technical demonstrator.

HMS Queen Elizabeth alongside in Portsmouth, March 2018

Photo: Steven Vacher via Flickr. Click for full-size version.

Tents covering the flight deck are to keep the work area dry while scheduled maintenance of the thermal metal spray (TMS) covered areas take place. TMS has been applied in sections at the rear of the flight deck to protect the steel from temperatures of up to 1,500 °C, generated by the F-35’s jet wash during vertical landing. TMS requires very careful application, done by injecting powdered metal through a jet of plasma at almost 10,000°C. The remainder of the flight deck is coated with textured anti-slip Camrex paint which needs to be renewed every three years, and this work will be carried out in stages during each scheduled maintenance period.

The scaffolding around the two islands provides safe access for the addition of new cabling and fittings, painting, and work being done on the bridge windows and diesel exhaust funnels. Large new funnel badges bearing the ship’s crest are also being added. The incremental fit of the Phalanx close-in weapons system has begun, ensuring the infrastructure is in place for the weapons system itself to be installed and set to work.

When QE was accepted by the MoD from the Aircraft Carrier Alliance (on the morning of her Commissioning in December 2017), it was agreed to extend the completion period until June 2018. In addition to the fitting of new equipment, ACA staff are rectifying defects that were thrown up during sea-trials. From June, maintaining the ship will be entirely a BAE Systems responsibility, delivered under the MoD’s Maritime Support Delivery Framework, worth around £69 Million annually.

This is the second maintenance period that has taken place on the ship, with the first before Christmas. This is the longest period so far and is challenging for the contractors as this is the first time many of the tasks have been done. In many cases, standard procedures do not yet exist and the manual is being written as the systems are understood better.

During the build process, it was recognised the Junior Rates’ scullery was too small to cope with the demand. It is now being doubled in size and a new dishwasher system is being installed that uses a conveyor system to get the washing up done more efficiently. Seemingly small details such as this can make a significant impact on the smooth running of the ship.

“The capability insertion period is planned activity (in fact it’s one of three such periods the Ship will undertake before QE reaches full operational readiness). There is an extraordinary amount of work in turning a trials ship into a warship and every month sees a graduated increase in the capability the ship can deliver. With over 1,000 helicopter deck landings already under our belt, we are developing more expansive clearances for helicopters than we have ever seen before. Next up are the Jets, and the Ship is being fitted with all the kit and communication systems required to ensure the aircraft and carrier can work together as a ‘system’. This is highly technical and time-consuming stuff and our sailors, airmen and shipyard workers are doing a great job in piecing it all together. Occasionally the ship will look like it’s held together with scaffolding – it isn’t and without it that mast, aerial, radar, funnel, anemometer or even paint job won’t get done. These are exciting times; the Ship is on track, as is HMS Prince of Wales. When the Ship gets to the States in the autumn, things are going to get noisy, pointy and fast!”.
Rear Admiral Keith Blount CB OBE, Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) for QEC

First of the eagerly anticipated, 3-part Chris Terrill documentary “Britain’s Biggest Warship” was shown on Sunday 15th April on BBC2. This excellent series gives a real insight into the challenge of bringing a huge new prototype vessel into service while capturing the human story of a ship’s company coming together. The next episode will reveal in more detail some of the issues encountered during sea trials.


Main image via Gary Davies, Maritime Photographic