NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, Md. — After years of partnership within the F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office, U.S. and United Kingdom team members from the F-35 Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF) eagerly anticipate the First of Class Flight Trials (FOCFTs) onboard the U.K.’s newest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, this fall.
When the first two fifth-generation F-35Bs – piloted by the ITF’s Royal Navy Cmdr. Nathan Gray and Royal Air Force Sqn. Ldr. Andrew Edgell – touch down on the carrier’s deck, the historic moment will be a tremendous step in bringing back Britain’s ability to launch fast jets at sea after a nearly 10-year hiatus.
“It’ll be the return of maritime aviation fixed-wing to the U.K.,” said Royal Navy Cmdr. Stephen Crockatt, team leader of UK personnel embedded within the ITF at both Pax River and Edwards Air Force Base, California. “We’ll do the [ship] trials and collect the data so next year the U.K. can do an operational trial. Then the U.K. will have jets back at sea — a capability we haven’t had in a long time.”
HMS Queen Elizabeth is the first of a new class of aircraft carriers that are the biggest and most powerful ships ever constructed for the Royal Navy. It features a flight deck designed exclusively to handle the F-35B, the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the fifth generation aircraft.
The FOCFTs will also mark the first time the Pax River ITF has conducted F-35 flight trials aboard a partner nation’s aircraft carrier, and as the event approaches, ITF program leaders sat down to reflect on the evolution of the JSF program, the dedication of its hard-working team members, and the cooperative partnership between the U.S. and U.K.
Teamwork at core of program
Andrew Maack joined the F-35 program back in 1996 and has been the Pax River ITF Chief Test Engineer and Site Director since 2002.
The program has played such an important part in Maack’s career, that when being interviewed about the years-long effort to bring the aircraft to fruition, there was an emotional catch in his voice as he described the myriad personnel who made it all happen.
“The people in this organization who did all this work were some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met,” he said.
Maack referred to a time when the program was put on probation by the Secretary of Defense in 2011, when the F-35B variant was not performing as expected.
“We were working three shifts seven days a week in those days; flight testing six days a week,” he said. “The people involved at all hours of the day, in many cases because of their expertise, was just impressive. While we went through some painful times, the most pleasant for me always was clicking through the gate each day to come work with the team of people I worked with. It’s hard to describe them other than that they were dedicated, selfless people who were going to make things happen.”
And happen they did.
Maack describes bursting with pride at the first landing of an F-35B on the L-class ship USS Wasp off the coast of Virginia in October 2011 but, surprisingly, he was not onboard to witness the milestone.
“It’s really exciting when an airplane is at sea, and I wanted our incredibly talented Air Vehicle Department head at the time, Tom Briggs, now Chief Test Engineer at Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23, to be out there instead,” he explained.
But the ship was close enough to shore to provide a good telemetry lock which allowed Maack and the ITF team back at Pax River to witness the landing unfold via live feed.
“There was a video camera on the nose of the airplane so we could see the flight and hear [the pilot’s] hot mic conversation,” Maack remembered. “I had the special job of escorting [the pilot’s] wife and we got to watch together, from her husband’s viewpoint. That was a big day.”
Now Maack can look forward to carrying that seaborne capability onto the deck of the Queen Elizabeth.
Mutual partnership, mutual respect
Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dale Collins, senior engineer managing the U.K. engineers working in the ITF hangar at Pax River, has been with the program just over three years. His fixed wing engineering and test background earned him the position with the ITF where his primary focus is as the U.K. integration lead, serving as a conduit for information coming from and returning to the U.K. about the ship.
“Integration is the key word for me,” he said. “For the past three years, I’ve been looking at all the support aspects of getting this aircraft onto U.K. ships and that has involved working with a broad range of people here in the U.S., including contractors, industry personnel, and U.S. military and government personnel. I’ve been absolutely accepted and integrated into this team and that’s been the great joy of working here.”
As a Tier 1 high level cooperative partner, the U.K. has been involved with the F-35 program from the start.
“Cooperative partners are those countries who’ve been an integral part in the decision making within the program from the very beginning, since the contract award to go build the F-35,” Maack said. “The U.K. is the only one of the F-35 partners permanently embedded with us here at Pax, and they have been since 2002. They’re very aware of F-35 capabilities and they’ve been part of all the U.S. ship trials.”
The Tier 1 designation also highlights the two countries’ close relationship going forward.
“From an operations perspective, because of the type of aircraft we’ve chosen [the F-35B], our relationship with the U.S. Marine Corps will be very strong, especially for the next 25 years or so,” Collins added.
The USMC has been operating with the F-35B since July 2015 and currently has four squadrons operating the STOVL variant. They also have two deployments with the fifth generation fighter under their belt.
Uniqueness of QE’s flight deck, testing
“There are going to be unique operations we’ll be doing out there; it’s going to be exciting testing,” Maack said about the upcoming FOCFTs.
Queen Elizabeth’s flight deck differs from U.S. L-class ships, which are amphibious warfare ships with small flight decks.
“When you stand on the Queen Elizabeth flight deck, a straight deck, you feel more like you’re standing on a CVN-class ship; it’s enormous,” Maack said. “The U.K, which always operated Harriers, will operate the F-35B with a ski jump off the bow of the ship, unlike the flat decks we have with the Marine Corps operating off L-class.”
The uniqueness of the ski jump launch, Maack said, is that it enables the airplane to get more gross weight, more payload, more weapons and more fuel airborne off the bow of a ship.
“In essence, the ramp provides vertical velocity in a ballistic fashion that enables the airplane to accelerate to flying speed at higher gross weights than you can off a flat deck,” he noted.
What the future holds
Going forward, a small U.K. team will remain embedded within the ITF following the FOCFTs.
“The U.K. aims to keep a small team within developmental test, within the ITF at both Pax River and Edwards AFB, as we have now. We’ll also keep an operational test team at Edwards that will do operational tests with other counties involved with the program,” Crockatt said.
With operational testing due to begin shortly, the ITF team is expecting additional workload to come their way as a result.
“From our fleet users, we fully expect to face issues that may be new,” Maack added. “They’ll discover or identify things as critical to fleet operations that maybe weren’t viewed by us as such during developmental testing, so we’ll get a bit of correction in terms of what’s important. We eagerly look forward to that and I’m pleased to do that future work with a lot of the people who also marched through the tremendous workload of [the system development and demonstration phase.]”
While Maack and Crockatt will be onboard the Queen Elizabeth for the upcoming trials, Collins retires in August and will have to observe from afar.
“The last three years of my career in the Royal Navy have been spent here at Pax River and I wouldn’t have wanted to spend it anywhere else,” Collins said. “I will be watching with keen interest to make sure all the challenges I’ve faced in the last few years will hopefully have been successful.”
Right now, the goal is to get both F-35Bs to the Queen Elizabeth, get them safely back, and collect a lot of data in between.
Crockatt said he looks forward to the data the ITF has, and continues to collect, being used to help the U.K. declare initial operating capability (maritime) for the U.K. F-35B Lightings, followed by the return of carrier strike cability for the UK in 2020.
“From there on, the UK F-35B Lightings can partake in supporting the defense of our realm, or whatever tasks our government decides for us to participate in,” he said.