Italy’s Cavour Begins “Ready for Operations” Sea Trials With F-35Bs

Two specially instrumented US Marine Corps F-35Bs landed aboard ITS Cavour, the Italian aircraft carrier, on the afternoon of 1 March. The two F-35Bs are the first jets to land on the Cavour, following the completion of her refit work to support F-35B operations in May 2020.

The two F-35Bs flew from Naval Air Station Patuxent River (NAS Pax River), Maryland, to the Italian Navy flagship, which departed Naval Station Norfolk on 28 February. The sea trials, expected to continue for the next four weeks, will certify the operational envelope of the Cavour’s flight deck. Following that, the impact of the F-35B when taking off and landing on the ship in various conditions of wind and sea will be verified, allowing for the Cavour to be certified as “Ready for Operation”.

One of the two Marine Corps F-35Bs parked on the deck of the Cavour, with commemorative tail art for the sea trials. (Italian Navy)

“Our team has trained extensively to prepare for this day, and I was honored to land one of the first two jets aboard Cavour,” said F-35B test pilot U.S. Marine Maj. Brad Leeman, the ITF test team project officer.

Maj. Leeman and two other pilots attached to the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Two Three (VX-23) at NAS Pax River, will fly the ITF jets during the flight test.

One of the two F-35Bs takes off from the Cavour. The other can be seen parked on the flight deck. (Italian Navy)

“The ITF plays a key role in the ship achieving carrier qualification in the near future,” Leeman said. “All of our hard work planning and training will ensure a successful sea trial and ultimately lead to Italy achieving the milestone of initial operating capability.”

The test pilots join a test team of approximately 180 personnel from the F-35 Integrated Test Force based at NAS Pax River, as well as a number of Italian Navy personnel trained on F-35 operations by the US Marine Corps at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina. The two groups boarded the Cavour during its stopover in Norfolk, joining the carrier’s crew of 580 sailors.

An F-35B is guided after landing on the Cavour. (Italian Navy)

“It is a remarkable achievement for all of us, today, to see the fifth-generation fighter aircraft on our flight deck,” said ITS Cavour Commanding Officer Italian Navy Capt. Giancarlo Ciappina. “This represents, indeed, an outstanding success but, at the same time, a new challenge for the future of Italian Naval Aviation.”

“Each and every officer and the whole crew are very proud to work closely with the F-35 Joint Program Office test team during these sea trials, and we are very well prepared to do the hard work to equip ITS Cavour and the Italian Navy with the Joint Strike Fighter’s fifth-generation air combat capability,” Ciappina said.

Another view of an F-35B parked on the Cavour‘s deck. (Italian Navy)

“We are excited to be underway with the crew of Cavour and honored to contribute to the aircraft carrier achieving the Italian Navy’s strategic goal of it being ‘Ready for Operations,’” said Andrew Maack, F-35 Pax River ITF chief test engineer and site director. Maack is embarked with the team, whose members have the engineering and test pilot expertise and experience to conduct F-35B envelope expansion flight test. “We look forward to a phenomenally successful shipboard detachment,” he said. 

The Cavour will be declared “Ready for Operations” once it can demonstrate safe launch and recovery of F-35Bs. This will allow her to undergo further testing with the F-35B to achieve Initial Operating Capability by 2024. Full Operating Capability will be reached once all F-35Bs ordered by Italy are delivered, with the Italian Air Force and Navy each having ordered 15 F-35Bs.