Up close with HMS Prince of Wales as the Royal Navy’s second aircraft carrier arrives in Portsmouth

On 16th November the second of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers, HMS Prince of Wales entered her home port for the first time. We witnessed the ship’s arrival and went on board to find out more about her progress and future programme.

The RNs newest ship came into view in the early afternoon and was welcomed by crowds packed onto many of the vantage points around Portsmouth harbour. Although much colder, the dry semi-overcast conditions were almost identical to when HMS Queen Elizabeth first arrived in the early morning of August 16th 2017. Pre-election purdah restrictions, and being ‘the second carrier’ saw reduced media coverage but did not diminish local enthusiasm to see the ship. A large contingent of families were on the jetty to greet their sailors in the ship’s new home.

Portsmouth has been preparing for the arrival of a second aircraft carrier for some time. With the completion of the £30M Victory Jetty, the base will be able to support both ships when HMS Queen Elizabeth returns from the US in early December. For her first arrival, HMS Prince of Wales came alongside at the Princess Royal Jetty which has already been proven in operation for her sister ship for more than two years and is the primary berth used for major work on the ships.

Building on experience

On arrival, her captain, Darren Houston said: “We’ve just become the premier naval power in Europe… with two carriers we are now very well placed to support our diplomatic and economic interests all over the world.” Captain Houston spent three years as the second in command of HMS Queen Elizabeth (QNLZ) before becoming the CO of HMS Prince of Wales (PWLS). Having previously brought HMS Dragon out of build and served in HMS Illustrious as a navigator specialist, he was an ideal replacement for Captain Steve Moorhouse. Capt Moorhouse had something of a ‘pierhead jump’ in May 2019 when he was transferred to command QNLZ after the premature termination of Captain Nick Cooke-Priest’s time in charge.

The ship’s company of PWLS includes several other key people who have previously served on her sister ship and their experience has proved valuable. Many lessons were learned from how QNLZ was built and a slightly different process was used. Instead of awaiting completion of the whole ship before hand over, she was transferred incrementally by department as different systems were completed. In particular, the largest compartments and machinery spaces were handed over first so personnel could gain experience in their operation. The smaller and simpler compartments were left to the latter stage of the process. Experience gained from the first ship also informed the outfitting of the second vessel.

The Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA) prioritised the sequence in which the most complex aspects comprising the propulsion, mission and aviation systems were completed. Electrical, cooling and ventilation systems were also put in and brought online earlier so that when external contractors arrived to fit and commission equipment the spaces were already well prepared.

An example of financial savings was in the application of the Thermal Metallic Spray (TMS) paint which protects the deck from the great heat of F-35 jet efflux. Application of this coating cost around £35 Million for QNLZ but for her sister, it will be less than half this figure due to improved performance in the process. Integration of the mission systems on QNLZ cost around £23 Million but was reduced by experience to £15M for the second ship. Overall the ACA say the total construction cost of PWLS was around 19% less than the lead vessel and work was completed in about two-thirds of the time.

  • After falling out from procedure alpha, sailors look for the families amongst the crowds on the jetty

  • Tugs very gently ease the ship alongside. Note the ‘dolphins’ that keep the ship off the jetty needed because of the large overhanging sponsons.

  • The ship’s company which currently comprises around 600 were supplemented by 300 civilian contractors still completing parts of the ship and assisting with the initial sea trials.

  • The sliding hangar doors were opened ready for the aircraft lifts to be lowered.

  • Custom-made brows are mechanically extended upwards to one of the two gangway doors on each side of the ship.

The Ships Staff Move On Board (SSMOB) date was achieved on 27th August when the accommodation and catering facilities were complete. PWLS made the tricky exit from the basin at Rosyth on 19th September and sailed for initial sea trials on 21st September. It was unknown exactly how long this first phase of trials would take, but it was expected to be up to 11 weeks. She made three visits to Invergordon during this period for rest and replenishment and, although there were some breakdowns and repairs required, in general, the ship has performed very well. 158 separate systems including propulsion, steering, sensors, communications and hotel services on the ship were tested before she arrived in Portsmouth 2 weeks ahead of schedule.

Captain Houston revealed that PWLS is very slightly longer, wider and heavier than QNLZ and also achieved a higher top speed than her sister during the trials. A healthy sibling rivalry between the two mighty vessels is just beginning. There are no significant internal differences between the two ships despite the evolution of the construction process.

Near-term plans

The ship is still owned by the ACA and has yet to be formally handed over the RN, of the 3,013 compartments onboard there are still some to be completed. The ship’s sponsor, HRH the Duchess of Cornwall and her husband, the Prince of Wales, will attend the formal commissioning ceremony to be held in Portsmouth on 10th December. This date will also mark with the 78th anniversary of the destruction of the previous HMS Prince of Wales by Japanese aircraft in the South China Sea during 1941 with the loss of 327 men.

The ship will be alongside in Portsmouth until February 2020 when she will return to sea to begin a further phase of trials and work up. She will conduct helicopter flying when at sea in 2020 but the first F-35 jets will not embark in PWLS until early 2021. Like QNLZ, the ship did not leave Rosyth fully complete and will go through a series of incremental Capability Insertion Periods (CIP) while alongside in between time spent at sea. PWLS will be declared fully operational sometime in 2023.

One small difference between the two carriers is that PWLS has been fitted with the Bedford Array which consists of a series of lights embedded in the flight deck. This visual landing aid is will assist F-35 pilots making the Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL) manoeuvre. An initial test of SRVL was made onboard QNLZ in 2018 but PWLS will conduct further SRVL trials in early 2021 to expand operating envelope with heavier aircraft loads and in more demanding weather conditions.

  • The hangar – still full of stores and contractors materials.

  • Two Wildcat and two Merlin helicopters were embarked especially for the entry into Portsmouth – the most aircraft on board to date. During the sea trials, a Merlin Mk 2 of 820 Naval Air Squadron operated from RAF Lossiemouth supporting the ship with stores and personnel transfers.

  • The view from the ski jump.

  • Safely alongside for her first night in Portsmouth.