HMS Queen Elizabeth returns to her birth place for planned dry-docking

Here we report on the current progress of HMS Queen Elizabeth as she arrived in Rosyth for maintenance.

Since returning from her successful Westlant 18 deployment on 10 December, HMS Queen Elizabeth has been alongside in Portsmouth having another Capability Insertion Period (CIP). This was another pre-planned programme of additions which included further painting of areas of the flight deck with special heat-resistant TMS paint. QE did not leave the builders fully completed and there has been a series of incremental works to finish the ship and make minor modifications gained from trials experience.

The most noticeable external addition during this CIP was the fitting of two of the three Phalanx CIWS mounts that she will eventually carry. The addition of her self-defence armament is being done incrementally with the third (Port side forward) Phalanx mount and the four 30mm Automated Small Calibre Guns (ASCG) still to be fitted. As the ship is not due to be declared operational until the end of 2020 or sail into harm’s way, the delay in weapons fit is of limited consequence, although slightly surprising it cannot be managed during a single work period. (For those interested in the rather heated debate about whether HMS Queen Elizabeth should have more self-defence weapons, there is a balanced and developed article on the subject here)

Passing under the Forth Bridges at low tide on the 3rd April. When she left the Rosyth in 2017 she went under the bridges at night but this time there was an opportunity for some great daylight photos.

After departure from Portsmouth on the 1st April, QE sailed up the East coast of the UK, arriving on the Forth 3rd April. There was some speculation she might meet up with the naval units involved in exercise Joint Warrior, but that is being held on the west coast and a significant detour could not be justified for the sake of a photo. Even passing the ship under the Forth Bridges is nit simple as the road bridge is closed to pedestrians, the mast has to be lowered and clearance is only possible at low tide. On 4th April the first attempt to bring her into the basin was made but was aborted due to high winds. Conditions on the 5th were also unsuitable but the docking operation was finally completed in the afternoon of the 6th. It takes at least 7 tugs, considerable skill and detailed planning by the Forth Pilots and the ship’s navigators to execute a move with such fine margins.

Should the high winds have lasted for several days, it is possible the high tide window needed to get over the lock sill could have been missed and the ship might have had to remain at anchor for several weeks awaiting another opportunity. In this instance, there is no pressing operational need to rush the ship into dry dock but in future, this might not be the case. As discussed in a previous article, finding a better solution to dry-docking the aircraft carriers need to be found, with improvements to access at Rosyth being one of the options.

QE at anchor awaiting favourable wind and tide conditions needed to enter the basin at Rosyth. (Photo: Tom Duffin)

Lining up to pass through the narrow lock entrance. A roller-fender system is designed to ease the ship through with just one-metre clearance each side of the ship, and just over a metre depth between the keel and the entrance sill. (The Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carrier Visitor Centre building used to brief media and VIPs can just be seen on the jetty to the left)

Some have questioned why such a new ship needs to be docked so soon. QE was floated out of the dry dock where she was assembled for the first time in July 2014 so her hull has been in the water for almost 5 years. A decision was taken many years ago to build and maintain the ship to Lloyds Rules standards. These regulations demand that compliant vessels have hull inspections roughly every 5 years. While QE is dry-docked, work will include changing some of her underwater valves and inspection of the rudders, propellers and stabilisers. Marine growth that reduces the speed through the water will be cleaned off and new paintwork applied where needed. The £5 Million work package will be undertaken by Babcock and will take about 6 weeks. She is expected to emerge in May and conduct further sea trials and training. Later in the year, QE will sail on another deployment to the US (Westlant 19) carrying UK-owned F-35B jets to begin operational test flying, building on the successful developmental test flying undertaken last year.

Totalling 130,000 tonnes of warship, HMS Queen Elizabeth seen from HMS Prince of Wales. Together here in Rosyth for the first time since June 2017, the two ships will be together again in Portsmouth by late 2019

Safely back into number one dock and under the Goliath crane used to assemble her and her sister.