Up close with HMS Queen Elizabeth

In this photo-essay, we go aboard the largest warship ever constructed for the Royal Navy as she prepared to leave Rosyth to put to sea for the first time. This is not an exhaustive tour (the ship is made up of over 3,000 compartments) but gives an overview of some key features.

The scale of HMS Queen Elizabeth is obvious as you approach the vessel, but upon stepping aboard, the feeling of size and spaciousness is magnified by the unusually wide and high passageways around the ship. The immediate impression is that she is quite unlike HMS Ocean or her Invincible class predecessors and is very much a ship of the 21st Century. It is clear she is robustly constructed, designed to survive action damage and serve the nation for up to 50 years. Strength, safety and survivability are obvious from the equipment fit, heavy watertight doors and subdivision and designed to mitigate against fire, flood and blast.

Many critics have asked why build such big ships? Not only does this make aircraft operations easier, but spare capacity will allow for easier upgrading to support new generations of aircraft and UAVs in the coming decades. In extremis, large numbers of extra personnel and stores could be embarked.

Great consideration has been given to ergonomics and accessibility to minimise the overall manpower requirements and workload on the crew. For example in older vessels, storing the ship for sea would require most of the ship’s company to form a chain, manually pass boxes and strike them down into storerooms. On the QE, store ship can be done in a harbour with around 20 people thanks to automated lifts and carefully planned access routes. (Additional seamen would be required when conducting a replenishment at sea). Another example is the Highly Mechanised Weapon Handling System (HMWHS) that moves ammunition around the ship and requires only around 30 people to operate.

Hangar and Lifts

The ship has been designed from the outset to embark four squadrons of aircraft. Initially, there will be helicopter squadrons and then a single F-35 squadron. It will be well into the 2020s before the UK has enough F-35s to embark two squadrons (of approximately 12-aircraft each). US Marine Corps aircraft are likely to be frequent visitors and may even embark a full squadron at times. The air management organisation (on 2 deck aft), provides each of the four aircraft squadrons with their own spacious offices and mission planning spaces. There is also a large group briefing room/lecture theatre. The movement of aircrew from their accommodation to briefing rooms and on to their aircraft has been carefully designed to be as quick and easy as possible, in contrast to older carriers.

Control positions

Spacing out the main machinery into two almost separate systems is the primary reason for the unique twin-island design of the QE. This separation requires funnel uptakes that are a distance away from each other. This arrangement makes the ship’s propulsion particularly resistant to action damage. The Flyco is now entirely separate from the bridge and this will take some adjustment for experienced carrier operators who are used to having flying control team close to the navigation team. This also offers additional redundancy, as the aft island could act as an emergency conning position or forward island as Flyco if the other is damaged.

As currently configured, QE has 6 aircraft operating spots (this could be increased if needed in future). With around 45 meters between each spot, this provides a large safety margin. There 3 areas of the flight deck that have been coated with TMS (Thermal Metal Spray). This coating prevents damage to the steel deck plates from the fierce heat of the F-35B jetwash, when landing vertically and conducts the heat away, preventing damage to aircraft tyres.

The F-35 is coated with radar absorbent material which is relatively fragile. The aircraft must be handled more carefully than older generation jets. Some critics have suggested it will degrade rapidly in the harsh marine environment (it is reportedly standing up well to desert winds and sand in the US). The flight deck has blue markings in various positions where F-35s can be parked overhanging the deck, although they will be probably kept down in the hangar as much as possible. When on the flight deck, it is planned helicopters will usually be parked on the starboard side, clustered around the islands.

QE is designed to operate up to 40 aircraft in her main Carrier Strike role. When operating in the Littoral Manoeuvre role she can embark a maximum of 43 helicopters. It should be noted that it will be some years before the UK has enough aircraft to send to sea in these numbers. The mix of aircraft types embarked will vary depending on the mission and availability – this is the concept is known as the Tailored Air Group.

Living on board

Without the air group or an embarked military force, the regular ship’s company now amounts to more than 700, of which around 100 are officers. There appears to already have been a small rise in the number of personnel required, beyond the original target of 679. Delivering such a high-profile project as the QE class aircraft carriers in a glare of publicity demands the RN get it absolutely right. Particularly at senior levels, many of those appointed to serve on the QE represent the cream of the RN surface fleet. There is considerable accumulated naval experience and for some this represents the culmination of their career and ambitions. For a few, QE will be their first experience of going to sea, sailors ages range from as young as 17 right up to 58 year old veterans. During this tour the ship was buzzing with activity but talking to members of the ship’s company both junior and senior, there is an assuring sense of calm professionalism and pride.

The crew have been living on board for over a month and this helps build team spirit and an emotional attachment to the ship. The Commanding Officer, Captain Jerry Kyd must establish a positive ethos and reputation that will lay the foundation for potentially 50 years of service to the nation. After completion of the ‘fast cruise’ in early June, the ship’s company continued to conduct drills and tests to build confidence before sailing, even as civilian contractors completed the final work on the ship.

The ship must become a home before it is a warship and the accommodation standards are the best in the Navy. Building on the pattern set by the Type 45 destroyers, junior rates have 6 berth cabins with bunks that are 3 ft wide, an improvement on the narrow beds fitted on older ships. The large single mess squares adopted on the Type 45 destroyers have been adapted slightly as some feel this can be a little impersonal. The junior rates messes on QE are divided into smaller communal areas for relaxing. Good accommodation is an important factor in efficiency and morale. It also aids retention of sailors in a navy short of people, competing with comfortable civilian jobs ashore.

More images at large size available here:

Photo tour

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