Two months from now, the UK Royal Navy’s largest ever warship will be named, before being floated out of its dry dock in Rosyth, Scotland, as the HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The first of two 65,000t vessels to be delivered by the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, the lead ship is still more than four years away from receiving its first visit by the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and over six from reaching full operational status.
With Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to perform the naming act on 4 July, the ship that will bear her name is currently a hive of activity, with around 1,500 workers on board each day installing and testing the systems needed for it to operate with roughly the same complement as the RN’s previous, 22,000t Invincible-class carriers: the last of which, HMS Illustrious, will be retired later this year.
The scale of the new-generation vessel is underlined first by taking the 110 steps from dock-side to its flightdeck, and then by surveying the latter. Roughly 300m (984ft) long and 73m across at its widest point, this “four acres of sovereign real estate” includes the vessel’s signature “ski-jump” ramp, installed from late last year. Approximately 61m long and over 13m wide, this will assist with launching the carrier’s future strike capability: the short take-off and vertical landing F-35B.
Once in use, the Queen Elizabeth will be capable of mounting sustained operations with an embarked air wing of up to 40 aircraft, also including the RN’s AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin HM2 multirole rotorcraft – including airborne early warning examples outfitted via Project Crowsnest – and its Merlin HC4 amphibious support helicopters. Up to 24 F-35s can be accommodated on the flightdeck, which has room for 12 fully-equipped aircraft servicing points.
Below, the ship’s 163m long and 26m wide hangar has room for 20 fighters, and its two aircraft lifts are each capable of transferring a pair of F-35s within 1min. They will also be able to move a Royal Air Force Boeing CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter with its rotor blades still attached, unlike on the navy’s legacy carriers.
The entire flightdeck will eventually be coated with a thermal metal spray, similar to that used in the offshore oil and gas sector. This will feature a unique rough finish, which will last significantly longer than traditional deck paint, which proved inadequate during previous at-sea testing conducted with the US Marine Corps. It will also provide the increased grip essential for aircraft landing using the UK-developed shipborne rolling vertical landing (SRVL) technique, says Eddie Trott, aviation and platform lead (STOVL reversion) for the Aircraft Carrier Alliance.
Flight activities will be managed from the “flyco” flight operations centre, which is contained within the vessel’s aft of two islands. Simulation-based work has already demonstrated that the Queen Elizabeth-class ships will be able to “equal or better” the Ministry of Defence’s required sortie generation rate, says David Atkinson, who is responsible for aircraft to ship integration work on the F-35 for alliance member BAE Systems. The organisation is also formed of Babcock, Thales UK and the Ministry of Defence. Rolls-Royce and GE are responsible for the ship’s propulsion and power systems.
Trials are scheduled to take place off the eastern seaboard of the USA in the fourth quarter of 2018, involving at least two of the UK’s initial operational test and evaluation examples of the F-35B. Only at that point will the UK be able to test its SRVL technique under embarked conditions: an advance that will also be of great interest to the USMC.
For now, large-deck carrier experience is being gained by RN personnel via a special skills programme agreement with the US Navy, which currently includes having deck handlers and pilots on the USS Harry S Truman.
The UK has so far received three test-phase examples of the F-35B, with a fourth now on order to support its training activities in the USA. A recently anticipated contract signing for its first 14 operational jets has yet to be made, with the delay attributable to ongoing cost uncertainty, driven by the US Department of Defense’s fiscal year 2015 budget approval process.
Back on the Queen Elizabeth, the vessel’s innovative highly mechanised weapon handling system is also taking shape. This will transfer bombs and missiles loaded during replenishment at sea down to its lower decks using multistorey lifts. When required, these munitions will be brought up and through the ship using a rail-equipped network of storage and fitting rooms, before being moved to the flight deck for aircraft loading. The technology will reduce the number of people involved in such work from around 400 on the Invincible-class carrier to a maximum of 120.
The new ship will have a permanent crew of 679 personnel, but should typically operate with 850, with the capacity to accommodate up to 1,600.
After leaving dry dock in July, the lead vessel will undergo systems outfitting until December 2015. Sea trials should begin in August 2016, and customer acceptance is scheduled for May 2017. The latter represents a massive task, with the MoD required to individually sign off each of the vessel’s 3,013 separate compartments.
“The delivery date for ship one is hugely reputational for us, but the success of the programme is in the delivery of ship two,” says Paul Rafferty, project management planning and controls director for the Aircraft Carrier Alliance.
The first blocks for the Prince of Wales are scheduled to arrive in Rosyth this August, with its structure scheduled to be complete in July 2016 and customer acceptance due in August 2019. However, Rafferty says the alliance partners are “working hard at the moment to accelerate that”.
Source: Flight International