NAS Patuxent River, Md. –
The autumn mix of red, brown, yellow and green reflective and life preserver vests are muted under still dim hangar lights as two separate teams unstrap and unchain the Wildcat HMA Mk2 maritime attack helicopter, with its next-generation versatility, and the F-35B Lightning II fighter aircraft, with its fifth generation capabilities, before moving the aircraft to the aft lift.
It’s not quite 6:30 a.m. Through the open hangar doors, it is still pitch black when the mosaic team of the HMS Prince of Wales hangar security and aircraft handlers, and the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, F-35 Integrated Test Force (PAX ITF) maintainers work in tandem to carefully move the aircraft onto the platform. Clinking chains are easier heard than seen as they secure the aircraft to aircraft tie-downs. After several Royal Navy sailors raise stanchions the lift alarm blares alerting everyone another working day is already well underway aboard Britain’s newest aircraft carrier.
It takes an integrated team to successfully conduct F-35B developmental phase 3 (DT-3) flight trials aboard the U.K.’s biggest warship. Two or more teams combining into one begins with a willingness to do so, two-way communication, detailed planning and thorough preparation that continues throughout execution. Two weeks into this deployment, the PAX ITF test team and HMS Prince of Wales (R09) ship’s company are bearing the fruit of work done before they got underway, and, bearing down—together—on the goals for the trials.
Getting aboard the ship in Norfolk, Virginia, in early October, much less achieving a close working relationship, took a metric ton of effort on both port and starboard sides of the Atlantic.
“Bringing almost 200 people aboard and having them assimilate with the ship in a matter of days was an incredible feat,” said Andrew Powers, detachment integrator, PAX ITF Detachment Operations. “It required patience, understanding and an eagerness to perform from both sides.”
DT-3 planning went through many stages and was carried out by a by an incalculable number of teams and personnel, Powers said. “Each handover to the next stakeholder brought with it new insights and considerations, and required great attention to detail. By communicating regularly and openly throughout the process, we ensured that everyone was operating to the same expectations and in pursuit of the same objectives,” he said.
Powers called the process of combining into one team “a flexible one, requiring communication and a willingness to adapt from all involved. With a team of this size, you cannot account for every variable. It takes a mutual understanding between the ITF and ship to ensure we are jointly executing toward our goal.”
Additional warfighting ability is the desired outcome of DT-3 and execution of the test plan has been a focus area for ship leaders since the beginning.
“Working relationships are professional, cordial and cooperative,” said Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Roffey, Senior Air Engineer, HMS Prince of Wales Air Engineering Department (AED). “AED and ITF are working together to achieve DT-3 goals.”
These connections and integration are due, in part, to a long period of DT-3 planning and concept of operations (CONOPS) development, he said.
In his role, Roffey directs and manages the department to support embarked aviation, ensuring operational capability to the AED commander. In addition to the F-35s aboard, RN helicopter squadron personnel and equipment are on board, making for a dynamic environment.
While the sailing is smooth now, there was churn at first as there is with many teams new to working together. The challenges included communicating to the right people at the right time and aligning ITF flight trials requirements and schedules with the ship’s routines, Roffey said.
As the two partners learned and adapted, they worked to “get to a position where AED/ITF … have coordinated scheduling.” Roffey characterized as “especially important” the ITF settling into routines onboard and PWLS getting used to the test team’s requirements and demands, which are different than standard tactical operations, to achieve DT-3.
A fortnight on, air engineers and the test team share a “confidence in the reliability of each element of the integrated team,” Roffey said. They have a common understanding of requirements and priorities of each element of the integrated team, and have suitable communications to pass information and respond to challenges, he said.
A key planner who worked on the test plan also said talking with each remaining “Semper Gumby” was important.
“Communication has been key, and there is a need to be flexible to adapt to this nonstandard test environment,” said Andy Pekarek, DT-3 project engineer, PAX ITF Basing and Ship Suitability (BASS).
“The PWLS crew have been understanding and receptive of our requests,” he said. “We worked through initial expected challenges but the team has grown to be well integrated.”
“The PWLS owns the ship and airspace, and our team at the ITF have depth of knowledge on the F-35B,” Pekarek said. “We are both experts in our respective fields and will come together to provide future extended capabilities beyond the current Initial Operating Capability (Maritime), (IOC(M)).”
As a member of BASS, a team comprised of two engineers in flying control (FLYCO) and on the bridge, and one engineer for precision approach landing system (PALS) approach in Carrier Air Traffic Control Center (CATCC), Pekarek’s primary role onboard in FLYCO during all flight operations includes communicating test points and test conditions between engineers in the ITF control rooms and the ship’s personnel, and his counterpart in the bridge.
From his perch in the aft island overlooking the flight deck, what he can’t see, and what is generally less visible, are the goings on in the aircraft hangar.
“Within my environment, challenges have been quickly overcome with good communication, such as additional training on ship’s aviation facilities,” said Royal Navy Warrant Officer 2 Christopher Owens, Hangar Control Officer, Air Engineering Department, HMS Prince of Wales.
Owens’ responsibilities include deconflicting whole ship department use of the hangar and ensuring that when aircraft are embarked the space is “aviation ready” in all respects, he said. He is also responsible for ensuring that hangar activities are carried out by the integrated team in accordance with the relevant standards, and for enforcing appropriate safeguards to ensure the safety of personnel, equipment and systems during peace time, and any risks and hazards are kept as low as reasonably practicable, or ALARP, during wartime or conflict ensuring airworthiness, he said.
“It is an extremely courteous and professional environment from both RN and ITF,” Owens said. “The combining of teams are important as different skillsets are always required to complete certain tasks and overall aim.”
He gives an example of how the groundwork for success during sea trials was laid before the ship set sail from Norfolk Naval Station, Virginia, Oct. 8.
“Prior to embarkation a comprehensive load plan was provided by ITF and through various meetings we were able to determine available space and which logistic containers required emptying, allowing immediate allocated positioning of all ITF equipment,” Owens said. “The onload process was extremely efficient with the ITF logistics team integrating with the hangar team immediately. This enabled correct allocation of working areas to establish rapid operational capability.”
Elsewhere on the ship, there is a hefty mission where teams’ close work delivers munitions from the deep magazines in the belly of the ship to the upper deck. It is one of the most attention-garnering tests of the flight trials: the F-35B flying with tens of thousands of external and internal weapons.
“The two major ordnance test points [max and heavyweight] were achieved,” said Royal Navy Lt. Josh Morris, Air Weapons Officer, HMS Prince of Wales AED Air Weapons Section. “This would have not been possible without the positive attitudes from ITF, U.S. Navy (USN) and RN with the motivation to deliver.”
Morris, call sign “Bombs,” leads both the Air Weapons build teams (Air Weapons Party) and the Highly Mechanised Weapon Handling System (Highly Mech). These two sections are ultimately responsible for getting munitions to the flight deck, he said.
The weapons-related test points provided a case study in interoperability between the jet and the ship, and integration between the weapons teams. U.S. F-35s were launched from a Royal Navy warship with American air ordnance that RN personnel had readied in the ship’s weapon prep areas with its equipment.
The USN ordnance build teams from the USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) aircraft carrier have been an important element of helping PWLS build and deliver ordnance to the flight deck, Morris said.
“Once the [U.S. Sailors] embarked alongside it was important to identify differences and understand how to adapt to them. We adopted a crawl, walk, run mentality working alongside the Sailors, and we were able to build that trust and understanding in one another step by step.”
“The two sections have an open line of communication and full trust in one another,” he said. “This trust enables the reliance on each other, which allows for an effective and efficient process of working toward the objectives.”
On the importance of integration, Morris said, “Without one, the other cannot achieve and vice versa. They rely totally on the skill and competency of the other teams to enable the single objective being achieved.
“All the parties come with unique knowledge which when combined allows for success. When not building weapons for the ITF test points, the RN and USN are conducting joint training to allow for any challenges or potential learning points to be identified early. ‘Train Hard, Fight Easy,’” he said.
Michael Land is a public affairs officer for the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, F-35 Lightning II Integrated Test Force.
F-35 Test Pilot Flies First Roll-On, Night Landing Aboard HMS Prince of Wales
An F-35 Lightning II test pilot performed the first roll-on landing of an F-35B fighter jet Oct. 19 aboard the HMS Prince of Wales aircraft carrier off the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. The pilot also performed the first night shipborne rolling vertical landing (SRVL) just after 9 p.m. Oct. 29.
Marine Corps Maj. Paul Gucwa piloted the short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the fifth generation strike aircraft for the first SRVL aboard HMS Prince of Wales, Britain’s biggest warship, as part of developmental test (DT) phase 3 flight trials during the ship's deployment to the Western Atlantic for WESTLANT 2023.
“It was a wonderful experience to see our training and preparation lead to a predictable and comfortable outcome,” Gucwa said. “Expanding on the initial work the team executed during DT-1 and DT-2 is the next step in providing these types of increased capabilities to the warfighter, which is what flight test is all about” he said.
F-35B pilots usually approach the carrier from the port side to a position adjacent to a landing spot. They then transition, or fly sideways, to the landing spot and land vertically. More than looking and sounding different, the landing technique could lead to tactics where a pilot returns to the ship with heavier loads, which could include more fuel or weapons. — Michael Land
UK ITF Members Train PWLS Ship’s Company in Air-To-Air Missile Ground Handling Operations
U.K. weapons personnel embedded with the Naval Air Station Patuxent River F-35 Integrated Test Force (PAX ITF) recently carried out essential training with HMS Prince of Wales (R09) personnel in ground handling operations for the Meteor beyond visual range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) aboard Britain’s biggest warship during developmental test phase 3 (DT-3).
The training on the next-generation BVRAAM system is in preparation for full operational capability (FOC).
The missile, which brings together six nations with a common need to defeat the threats of today as well as the future emerging ones, is designed to revolutionize air-to-air combat in the 21st century, according to the weapon system’s manufacturer, MBDA, a missiles and missile systems company.
The team was able to assess the ship’s suitability to prep and store the missile whilst also delivering handling training and capability briefs, explained Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Simon Stafford, U.K. weapons lead, PAX ITF, who led the team.
“Meteor operations on F-35 will provide the U.K. Carrier Strike Force with beyond-visual-range capability, enhancing the U.K.’s F-35B weapon arsenal,” Stafford said.
As part of the training, Meteor lead NCO Acting Sgt. Dan Housden briefed the ship’s head of air engineering, Royal Navy Cmdr. Jamie Elliott, on the missile characteristics.
Additionally, weapons team members Chief Technician Darrel Crane and Petty Officer Nathaniel Bicker embarked to support this trial iteration. They assessed the ship’s suitability to prep, store and deliver enhanced electronic countermeasures in preparation for HMS Prince of Wales’ participation in a carrier strike group deployment in 2025.
The first phase of the Operational Testing and Evaluation (OT&E) campaign of the Beyond Visual Range Air to Air Missile (BVRAAM) Meteor took place in recent weeks at Hebrides Range in the United Kingdom, according to reporting by EDR Magazine, which pays special attention to European defense-related matters.
“Guided by an advanced active radar seeker, Meteor provides all weather capability to engage a wide variety of targets from agile fast jets to small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and cruise missiles. It is designed to meet the most stringent of requirements and is capable of operating in the most severe of clutter and countermeasure environments,” according to the description provided by the manufacturer on its web site.
“The weapon is also equipped with data link communication. Aimed at meeting the needs of a network centric environment, Meteor can be operated using third party data, enabling the Meteor user—the pilot—to have the most flexible weapon system.” — Michael Land