Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carrier — Leave the landing light on

The deck of the new Queen Eliz­a­beth Class air­craft car­ri­ers may be the size of four foot­ball pitch­es and sup­port­ed by the best part of 65,000 tonnes of steel but, from three miles (5km) out, when viewed through the BAE Sys­tems sim­u­la­tor at Warton, it’s tiny and the tar­get area for land­ing looks even small­er. Report by Steve Moore.

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A pilot approach­es the deck of one of the Queen Eliz­a­beth Class air­craft car­ri­ers using the BAE Sys­tems sim­u­la­tor at Warton [Pic­ture: Andrew Lin­nett, Crown Copyright/MOD]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

Add in your 150-knot (278km/h) speed, a keen wind, a rolling sea state, a touch of mist, a black night, and you can see why land­ing an air­craft on a ship is prob­a­bly the most dif­fi­cult task most pilots will ever face.

Wel­come to the deck of one of the Queen Eliz­a­beth Class air­craft car­ri­ers, due in ser­vice by the end of the decade. Well, not quite the real car­ri­er, which is under con­struc­tion at Rosyth. This is BAE Sys­tems’ sim­u­la­tor at Warton, the only one in the world where the F-35 air­craft meets the future pride of the 2020 Roy­al Navy.

But this is not about train­ing pilots, nor hon­ing the skills of the per­son­nel whose deck-based task is to guide the air­craft in safe­ly.

This is about design­ing the flight deck, mak­ing sure its mas­sive array of coloured lights and lens­es, deck mark­ings and arrestor gear make for the safest envi­ron­ment for recov­er­ing the air­craft.

Tests are at an advanced stage using US Navy F-18 pilots, huge­ly expe­ri­enced in tak­ing off from and land­ing on car­ri­ers.

This is some­thing new for the UK. Our car­ri­ers, remem­ber, have oper­at­ed the short take off and ver­ti­cal land­ing (STOVL) Har­ri­ers for more than a gen­er­a­tion. Skills in land­ings are, shall we say, a lit­tle rusty.

Tests will inform the Air­craft Car­ri­er Alliance on design of the deck. With every sim­u­lat­ed land­ing, Defence Equip­ment and Support’s Joint Com­bat Air­craft Team learns more about the behav­iour of the F-35’s Car­ri­er Vari­ant (CV), the F-35C, which the UK will be oper­at­ing — a deci­sion firmed up by the Strate­gic Defence and Secu­ri­ty Review.

The sim­u­la­tor at BAE Sys­tems in Warton is host­ing tests to design the deck of the Queen Eliz­a­beth Class car­ri­ers:

“Basi­cal­ly we are deal­ing with a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent method of land­ing,” said Pete Symonds of the Air­craft Car­ri­er Alliance.

“With STOVL land­ing you stop and land; CV land­ing is land and stop. So it’s a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent set of lights in com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent posi­tions. Then the air­craft is dif­fer­ent. We’ve built a new mod­el into the sys­tem as clear­ly the con­trol laws are dif­fer­ent with many dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics includ­ing an arrestor hook.”

The team has adapt­ed well to the changes though:

“From the ship point of view it has been an eas­i­er task to organ­ise the light­ing sys­tem as we are now fol­low­ing how the Amer­i­cans do it. The Amer­i­can lay­outs have been our start­ing point and we’re try­ing to improve on them,” said Mr Symonds.

“And we’re helped by the fact that the actu­al size of the car­ri­er flight deck was dri­ven by the require­ment to be adapt­able. The STOVL ship could have been small­er but the adapt­able design was dri­ven by the size of the run­way, which was need­ed to recov­er the air­craft.

“We’ve tak­en the flight deck, and start­ed again. After the deci­sion was made to move to the Car­ri­er Vari­ant we had a peri­od of look­ing at vari­able equip­ment selec­tion before we start­ed the work.

“We now have the flight deck at what we call lev­el two matu­ri­ty, so effec­tive­ly the big bits are already fixed. The design of the flight deck is pret­ty well sort­ed.”

Test­ing will soon move to oth­er sim­u­la­tors to test recov­ery of heli­copters to the car­ri­ers.

From the Joint Com­bat Air­craft (JCA) Team’s point of view the F-35C will be equal­ly capa­ble from sea or land:

“The cur­rent focus for the JCA Team is ensur­ing the air­craft is inte­grat­ed onto the car­ri­er in the most opti­mal way,” said Wing Com­man­der Willy Hack­ett, the team’s UK Require­ments Man­ag­er.

“This air­craft will be the first stealth plat­form to oper­ate from an air­craft car­ri­er, which will bring new chal­lenges. Recov­er­ing an air­craft to a small mov­ing air­field, espe­cial­ly at night or in poor weath­er, has always focused the mind of any pilot who has flown at sea.

“The F-35 will bring new tech­nol­o­gy which in time will make land­ing on an air­craft car­ri­er just anoth­er rou­tine part of the mis­sion. On entry into ser­vice the air­craft will be equipped with the Joint Pre­ci­sion Approach and Land­ing Sys­tem [JPALS] which will guide the air­craft down to a point where the pilot can take over and land the air­craft man­u­al­ly.

“Future upgrades intend to allow JPALS to actu­al­ly land the air­craft with­out pilot input in very poor weath­er.”

He added:

“A new flight con­trol sys­tem, com­bined with new sym­bol­o­gy in the hel­met-mount­ed dis­play, looks to dras­ti­cal­ly reduce pilot work­load on a man­u­al­ly flown approach.

“This tech­nol­o­gy is being inves­ti­gat­ed by the US and UK, and if suc­cess­ful will see a major reduc­tion in the train­ing required to keep pilots com­pe­tent at land­ing on air­craft car­ri­ers from the mid­dle of the next decade.

“Once this new tech­nol­o­gy is invest­ed in the F-35C the pilot will be able to focus on the mis­sion to an even greater extent than is pos­si­ble now in the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of car­ri­er vari­ant air­craft.

UK JCA squadrons will there­fore be more oper­a­tional­ly focused than cur­rent gen­er­a­tion sea-based air­craft and will keep UK air pow­er at the front rank of mil­i­tary pow­ers.”