HMS Queen Elizabeth Visits Norfolk VA
This past September I had the good fortune to see the Royal Navy’s newest and largest ship the HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) in Norfolk Virginia. Her visit to Norfolk coincided with my visit to the NAS Oceana airshow.
The HMS Queen Elizabeth is known affectionately as ‘Big Lizzie’. She is the lead ship of a new class of aircraft carrier for the Royal Navy.
Her visit is part of a deployment to the United States known as WESTLANT 18. The purpose of this deployment is to conduct First of Class Flight Trials (Fixed Wing) for the F-35B off the coast of Maryland.
‘Big Lizzie’ visited three liberty ports while deployed on WESTLANT 18. She berthed in Mayport Florida, Norfolk Virginia and New York New York.
I witnessed the HMS Queen Elizabeth in Norfolk and again when she put to sea through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel (CBBT). I wasn’t sure what I was seeing at first as she traversed the Thimble Shoal Tunnel. I had just entered the CBBT and the elevated roadway split her twin islands as I approached. She proceeded quickly through the channel and into open sea where I was able to capture her image.
While in port the HMS Queen Elizabeth was berthed adjacent to the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln CVN 72.
‘Big Lizzie’ is unlike any carrier myself or anyone else has ever seen before. She is three times the size of the Royal Navy carriers she replaces. Her design has a unique two island superstructure, a ski ramp bow and substantially wider deck than any other carrier. All of these features combine to make her a new type of super carrier.
She is equipped with twin island super structures, one for navigation and ship’s operations, the other for flight control and aerial operations. The islands are dual functioning and can take on each other’s function if need be.
‘Big Lizzie’ is the largest ship ever constructed by the Royal Navy. For a Royal Navy carrier she is far more comparable to the U.S. Navy super carriers than the former HMS Invincible class carriers she replaces.
The Queen Elizabeth class of carriers will be made up of two ships, the HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) and the HMS Prince of Wales (R09) currently under construction.
HMS Queen Elizabeth’s design is unlike any aircraft carrier ever built. The Royal Navy consciously made it wider and without catapults or arrestor wires. The ship is purpose built for F-35B Lightning II V/STOL aircraft and Merlin Helicopters. The carrier can carry as many as 60 aircraft and 250 Royal Marines. The wider than normal deck can accommodate the Chinook transport and Apache attack helicopters of her sister services. To date, nine different aircraft types have landed on ‘Big Lizzies’ deck.
The new Commando Merlin Mk4 helicopters were observed on her deck. The Commando Merlin Mk4 is an upgraded, faster and more powerful aircraft than its predecessor. Painted in a new maritime grey coat, it is equipped with a folding main rotor and tail, upgraded flight controls and a tactical computer. The modifications were made for operations from the HMS Queen Elizabeth class of carriers. The Royal Navy is expected to acquire 25 Commando Merlin Mk4’s.
Escorting the HMS Queen Elizabeth is the Frigate HMS Monmouth ‘The Black Duke’ and the tanker RFA Tiderace.
The HMS Queen Elizabeth WESTLANT 18 deployment utilized NAS Pax River, Maryland Integrated Test Force (ITF) F-35B’s BF-04 and BF-05.
Four pilots are involved in this jet trial program. The Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, U.S. Marine Corps and BAE Systems each contributed one test pilot.
The honor of landing the first F-35 onboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth belongs to Royal Navy Commander Nathan Gray. Commander Gray said of the trials, “It has been phenomenal to get through a high profile with such success. This is due to the skills of the designers of both the F-35 and the ship herself.”
The sea trials were divided into two Developmental Testing phases known as DT-1 and DT-2. There were 500 marks to achieve in DT-1 and DT-2. The second phase (DT-2) exceeded expectations and was completed well ahead of schedule.
The first Allied aircraft to land on ‘Big Lizzie’ was a U.S. Navy MH-53E Sea Dragon of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 14. This was followed by a U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 264.
This deployment witnessed the F-35B reach several milestones. The F-35B made 202 takeoffs from the ship’s ski ramp, 187 vertical landings, including at least 1 backwards landing and 15 ‘rolling landings’ (shipborne vertical landings). The rolling landings allow the F-35 to land with heavier payloads and negate the need to jettison fuel or weapons. The F-35B also dropped 54 inert bombs, testing the weight loading in a variety of weather conditions and sea states.
The Royal Navy said these sea trials will write the operations manual for the F-35B and that the trials were ‘eclipsing aspirations’.
The U.S. Marine Corps was particularly interested in these sea trials. The Marines, who also fly the F-35B will join the ship when she deploys operationally for the first time in 2021.
Great Britians’s Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “HMS Queen Elizabeth’s inaugural deployment to the US has not only marked the return of the Royal Navy’s carrier strike capabilities, but also strengthened our special relationship with US forces. A true statement of our global reach and power, this ship will serve the United Kingdom for generations to come, keeping the nation safe and supporting our allies as we navigate increasing threats.”
At the conclusion of DT-2 ’Big Lizzie’ returned to Norfolk to offload the NAS PAX River ITF team and their equipment. She then set sail for home before the Christmas holiday.
‘Big Lizzie’ will return to sea for DT-3 in 2019 before being declared operationally ready.