On October 11, a specially instrumented US Navy-operated F-35B Lightning II (168314/‘68’) landed aboard HMS Prince of Wales (R09) – the second of the Royal Navy’s two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers – thereby kicking off Developmental Test Phase 3 (DT-3) sea trials with the type on the warship.
Normally based at His Majesty’s Naval Base (HMNB) Portsmouth in Hampshire, the aircraft carrier sailed to Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, where it embarked equipment and personnel – a 200-strong test team from the F-35 Integrated Test Force (ITF) at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland – for up to four weeks of sea trials off the US East Coast.
Flown by USMC test pilot and ITF project officer, Maj Paul Gucwa, the F-35B wore ‘PWLS’ tail codes and an ‘F-35B First of Class/HMS Prince of Wales’ badge. The jet was drawn from the US Navy’s Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23) ‘Salty Dogs’, a component of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) at Patuxent River. It was the first of a number of F-35Bs to join the carrier, with Maj Gucwa being one of three test pilots to undertake the trials.
The carrier deliberately sought out bad weather and heavy seas, with the embarked F-35Bs practising take-offs and landings with various weapons and fuel loads. The aircraft used advanced take-off and landing techniques to launch with heavier weapon loads, recover at heavier weights and turn around faster. In particular, the aircraft practised ‘rolling vertical landings’ as a means of recovering with higher bring-back loads, rather than having to dump unexpended ordnance into the sea in order to get down to vertical landing weight. The first shipboard rolling vertical landing was achieved on October 19.
These trials promise to expand the operating limits of the F-35B for the Royal Navy, allowing more sorties to be launched by more heavily-armed Lightning IIs faster and in more extreme weather conditions – thereby increasing the power of the UK’s carrier strike force. Flight trials were initially scheduled to take place in 2022, but Prince of Wales incurred damage to one of its propeller shafts while en-route to the US and had to be repaired at Rosyth, with the process being completed in July. DT-3 with the F-35B follows flight trials with a UAS provided by W Autonomous Systems and are due to be followed by trials of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc’s Mojave medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) short take-off and landing (STOL) UAS.