HMS Queen Elizabeth has arrived back in Portsmouth following successful First of Class rotary wing trials in the Atlantic.
A team of 56 aircrew, analysts and engineers from the Air Test and Evaluation Centre (ATEC) at MOD Boscombe Down have been onboard the aircraft carrier for the past month with two Merlin Mk2 and two Chinook Mk 5 test aircraft.
A thousand deck landings have been carried out in a range of sea and weather conditions, with the specially equipped helicopters gathering data to identify the operating limits of the aircraft from the carrier at sea. Both airframe types have flown an average of ten hours a day.
The data will be processed over the coming months and will eventually provide the Ship Helicopter Operating Limits (SHOL) information for a range of helicopters including Merlin Mk2, 3 and 4, Chinook, the Apache attack helicopter and Wildcat. The aim is to achieve the widest SHOL envelope possible, so the ship is not constrained in its ability to manoeuvre.
Neil Thomas, QinetiQ’s Programme Technical Manager onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, says the trials have been very successful: “It’s gone extremely well, even through we had a very compressed timescale.
“We achieved 450 deck landings on Chinook and 540 on Merlin, which is pretty good going. This is definitely a once only career opportunity for us. It’s been an enormous challenge but well worth it for what we have achieved for the Royal Navy.”
HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed to the Atlantic, where most of the trials flying took place. This is because of the greater range of weather conditions available there. The trials analysts will look at things like the deck motion, wind monitors on both the ship and the aircraft and analyse the points at which the aircraft reached their limits.
Reaching that stage can be dangerous, as Royal Navy test pilot and Detachment Commander for the trials team, Commander Matt Grindon, said: “We’ve been learning about the wind patterns on deck, this is a new design of ship and the way wind moves across the deck and affects flying is something that we’ve focused on in these trials.
“Whilst turbulence is normal, one of my pilots has described it as the ‘Hand of God’ grabbing you and pushing you down onto the ship, which obviously requires a big power demand to stop the aircraft descending, so that’s given us some interesting insight. Nonetheless we have been able to clear a much wider envelope than we expected. We’ve been challenged, but that’s exactly what these trials are for."
Speaking as the ship sailed into Portsmouth, HMS Queen Elizabeth’s Commanding Officer, Captain Jerry Kyd, said: “I am delighted with the rapid progress the ship is making toward becoming an operational aircraft carrier. The success of the rotary wing flying trials in the Atlantic with Merlin and Chinook is another important milestone on that journey. We are rapidly approaching our deployment to the United States in the summer when we will see the first F-35B Lightning aircraft land on Queen Elizabeth’s deck. The ship is performing well and the marriage at sea of the Lightning and our carrier in a few months time will be a hugely symbolic event putting on notice that the UK is on the cusp of returning to fixed wing carrier operations at sea and a return to serious maritime power projection."