UK deploys first operational F-35Bs aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth

For the first time, the UK has deployed operational Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighters aboard the Royal Navy’s (RN’s) HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) aircraft carrier.

In total, four of the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft – belonging to the Royal Air Force’s (RAF’s) famous No 617 Squadron ‘Dambusters' – embarked on the RN’s new flagship on June 9. 

F-35B Lightning [Royal Navy] #1
F-35B Lightning - serial ZM146 (c/n BK-12) - on the deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth on June 9. Royal Navy

Personnel from the RAF’s No 617 Squadron – including pilots, engineers, cyberspace and mission support staff – arrived on HMS Queen Elizabeth in the days leading up to the arrival of the F-35Bs.

The RN stated that the aircraft that have embarked on the aircraft carrier for this deployment will “be the same aircraft that will sail next year with the ship for her maiden Global Carrier Strike Group 21 deployment”.

F-35B Lightning [Royal Navy] #2
A glimpse into the future. HMS Queen Elizabeth is capable of carrying up to 40 aircraft. Royal Navy

RN Commander Mark Sparrow, commanding officer of No 617 Squadron, said: “We are excited to be on board the carrier and we have been training hard to be here… This is the first time the ship’s operational squadron has embarked and worked together… The F-35 brings [a] next generation capability to UK defence through its ability to find, destroy or avoid enemy air defences and enemy aircraft whilst gathering intelligence data.”

Having just completed four weeks of basic sea training, HMS Queen Elizabeth will now be put through an intense period of flying. The aim is to demonstrate that the F-35B can successfully defend the aircraft carrier by conducting combat air patrols, be ready to take off at short notice and launch from the ship to conduct strike missions against a target.

F-35B Lightning [Royal Navy] #3
A No 617 Squadron 'Dambusters' F-35B takes off from HMS Queen Elizabeth on June 9. Royal Navy

The Commander Air on board HMS Queen Elizabeth (nicknamed ‘Wings'), RN Commander Ed Phillips, explained that the UK’s first deployment of operational F-35Bs marks a significant milestone “on the road to delivering carrier strike operations for the Royal Navy” – a capability which will return to the UK in 2021 with the vessel’s first operational deployment.

“We are at the heart of a world-leading capability for the UK and will soon have on our decks two squadrons of F-35s – from the UK and US – plus the protection of a strike group made up of destroyers, frigates and support ships,” he said.

F-35B Lightning [Royal Navy] #4
Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning - serial ZM144 (c/n BK-10) - on the flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth. Royal Navy

Following an initial qualification period, the ‘Dambusters' will work alongside 820 Naval Air Squadron (NAS)-operated Merlin HM2 helicopters aboard the carrier. This will involve a number of complex training missions.

Later this year, No 617 Squadron will deploy with the carrier and its task group for a large multinational training exercise with US, European and NATO partners.