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F-35s join HMS Prince of Wales for key fast-jet trials

F-35s join HMS Prince of Wales for key fast-jet trials
13 October 2023
Specially-modified F-35B Lightning stealth fighters have joined Britain’s biggest warship to begin pushing the boundaries of carrier aviation.

By the time aviation experts, pilots and scientists have analysed all the data gathered during the four weeks of extensive trials, the UK’s two aircraft carriers should be able to launch more sorties by more-heavily-armed stealth fighters faster in more extreme weather conditions – increasingly the striking power of the nation’s most powerful warships.

HMS Prince of Wales will chase bad weather and heavy seas while the jets themselves will take-off and land with various weapons and fuel loads, experiment returning from ‘missions’ still carrying missiles/bombs – rather than ditching them in the ocean – and practise landing by rolling to a stop on the flight deck rather than touching down vertically.

Test pilots from the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Two Three (VX-23), Naval Air Station Patuxent River (NAS Pax River), Maryland, joined the carrier off the Eastern Seaboard of the US for the trials, known as Developmental Test phase 3 (DT-3).

The Portsmouth-based aircraft carrier sailed from Norfolk Naval Station, the world’s largest naval base, having embarked the equipment and personnel – a 200-strong test team from the Pax River F-35 Integrated Test Force (ITF) specifically for the trials.

“Our team has trained extensively to prepare for this day, and I was honoured to bring the capabilities of the F-35B back out to the Prince of Wales,” said F-35B test pilot Major Paul Gucwa USMC, the ITF test team project officer.

He is one of three experienced Lightning pilots flying special test variants of the F-35B – packed with sensors and instrumentation – on and off the deck of Britain’s biggest warship over the next month.

“Our planning, training, and preparations were focused on conducting a successful sea trial and ultimately contributing to the carrier continually developing to keep it at the cutting edge,” Major Gucwa added.

Watching from the bridge, Captain Richard Hewitt, HMS Prince of Wales’ Commanding Officer, witnessed the approach and vertical landings of the stealth jets.

“This is why we are here,” he said. “Over the next few weeks we will work together with the F-35 programme to increase the capability of the world’s most advanced fifth-generation stealth fighter alongside the UK’s fifth-generation aircraft carrier.

“During this phase of our deployment we will see the jet develop advanced landing and take-off techniques, allowing it to recover heavier, turn around faster, and launch with more weapons.”

With the pilots and jets on board “the carrier of today and tomorrow,” the embarked ITF team will now execute a comprehensive test plan and collect data that will ultimately lead to expanding the operating limits of the F-35B Lightning for the Royal Navy.

“We are excited to be under way with the crew of Prince of Wales and honoured to contribute to the aircraft carrier’s trials of pushing the boundaries of 21st century carrier operations,’” said Andrew Maack, Pax River F-35 ITF chief test engineer and site director.

The embarked team comprises members who have the engineering and test pilot expertise and experience to conduct F-35B envelope expansion flight test. “We look forward to a brilliantly successful shipboard detachment,” he said.

The trials come as both of the UK’s carriers are at sea with UK flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth operating in northern European waters and due to visit Sweden this weekend before resuming her autumn deployment working with NATO and Joint Expeditionary Force allies.

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