RAF F-35Bs Conclude WESTLANT 19 Operational Tests

On 23 November, 3 F-35Bs of the Royal Air Force’s 617 and 207 Squadrons departed HMS Queen Elizabeth for RAF Marham in Norfolk. Their departure marks the conclusion of the RAF F-35Bs’ Operational Test (OT-1) program, performed as part of the WESTLANT 19 deployment of the UK Carrier Strike Group. They had landed on the carrier for the beginning of the test program on 13 October, after flying across the Atlantic Ocean from RAF Marham to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, in South Carolina.

Royal Navy official video commemorating the successful conclusion of testing.

The operational test program was intended to provide “end to end” testing of the F-35Bs and personnel in order to ensure that the aircraft was compatible with the HMS Queen Elizabeth. The tests included mission planning, arming F-35Bs with the aircraft carrier’s Highly Mechanized Weapons Handling System, flying missions and performing debriefs of missions flown.

Flight Deck Officer, Lt Cdr Richie Turrell, launches a US Marine Corps F-35B of VMX-1. Photo courtesy Royal Navy.

Three US-based F-35Bs of the RAF’s No. 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron joined the 617 Squadron and 207 Squadron aircraft on HMS Queen Elizabeth. They were later joined by US Marine Corps F-35Bs, from VMX-1, which performed carrier qualifications for HMS Queen Elizabeth as well.

The hangar of the HMS Queen Elizabeth converted into a conference space for the Defense and Security Trade Expo. Photo courtesy Royal Navy.

Following the completion of the tests, the components of HMS Queen Elizabeth’s strike group, which included HMS Northumberland, HMS Dragon and RFS Tideforce, dispersed on diplomatic visits to various ports on the Eastern Seaboard.

Chief of Maritime Staff Adm. Hiroshi Yamamura, left, First Sea Lord Adm. Tony Radakin, and Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Mike Gilday sign a Trilateral Head of Navy Joint Statement aboard the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08). The trilateral cooperation agreement reaffirms the three countries’ commitment to increased collaboration and cooperation. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Raymond D. Diaz III/Released)

A notable outcome of the diplomatic visits was the signing of a trilateral agreement between the US Navy, the Royal Navy and Japan’s Maritime Self Defence Force to deepen cooperation aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth. It is worth noting that all three services have or will have ships capable of operating F-35Bs.

F-35Bs landing in quick succession following a “multi-ship” mission. Photo courtesy Royal Navy.

The Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL) maneuver was performed multiple times during the test program. However, testing with heavier weapon and fuel loads was not performed, and will only be carried out in later testing programs. 

An F-35B lands aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth at twilight. Photo courtesy Royal Navy.

The Royal Air Force plans to declare initial operational capability for carrier-based F-35 operations by the end of 2020. The first operational deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth with the 617 Squadron and a squadron of US Marine Corps F-35Bs on board is currently slated for 2021.