HMS Prince of Wales to begin F-35 trials in January 2021: Exclusive

Berenice Baker and Harry Lye 2 March 2020 (Last Updated March 2nd, 2020 10:02)

The Royal Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, will begin fixed-wing trials with the F-35 in January 2021, the ship’s commanding officer has told Naval Technology.

HMS Prince of Wales to begin F-35 trials in January 2021: Exclusive
Captain Darren Houston said F-35 trials would start aboard HMS Prince of Wales in January 2021

The Royal Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, will begin fixed-wing trials with the F-35 in January 2021, the ship’s commanding officer has told Naval Technology.

Speaking on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier while docked in Liverpool on Saturday, HMS Prince of Wales’ commanding officer Captain Darren Houston outlined the timeline for the ship’s future trials, including when fixed-wing aircraft would begin trials on the ship.

Rotary wing aircraft, like the Merlin helicopter, will be trialled first before progressing to the F-35. Basic sea trials will continue with the ship through autumn, clearing the way for further operations.

Houston told Naval Technology: “This year is really about generation of the ship itself, the internal aspects but also the external. The first part is really making sure we are able to take helicopters and we build up the deck experience and also the pilots and the aircrew as well.

“So we’ll have the Merlin helicopters a bit later on, but later on this year we will do some more work with them and then into the autumn we commence our basic sea training and that tests every aspect of the ship. That’s all about the fight, the float, the move, the self-protect and the aviation parts of our business.”

Houston, who was number two in command during HMS Queen Elizabeth’s flight trials last year and served previously on HMS Illustrious, went on to say that these initial trials will progress the ship towards embarking and trialling F-35 aircraft on board.

He said: “That then leads us into fixed-wing trials which are beginning in January 2021. That is when we will go out to the United States, to the East Coast, and we will embark our F-35s.”

He added that while they will be putting the F-35s ‘through their paces’, the crew would be doing the same with the ship to train for all weather conditions to build difficult datapoints for operations in high sea states and heavy winds. Houston said the trials would take the aircraft and the ship to the ‘highest end of its envelope’.

The Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are the only ships in the world built and designed around F-35 operations, earning it the moniker of a ‘fifth-generation’ ship among its crew. Operating two vessels makes the UK’s Royal Navy the premier European carrier force within NATO.

Asked if, as some critics have complained, the ships were a waste of money and if aircraft carriers were obsolete, Houston said that if China is building its own carriers, they are still relevant.

He explained: “For those that say no, they are an outdated thing, I’d look very carefully why China has just built a second one and has another in service. We need to be able to react, and be on the world stage.”

HMS Prince of Wales was in Liverpool for a visit named Operation Heartland, during which some 30,000 visitors are expected to be welcomed on board. The ship is affiliated to Liverpool and Bristol.

The second-in-class ship is seen by its crew as the ‘biggest and fastest’ in the Royal Navy, being four metres longer and as much as three knots faster than its sister ship, HMS Queen Elizabeth.