On a unseasonally fine December day in the eastern Atlantic, HMS Queen Elizabeth’s carrier battle group forms up one last time for the camera – just days from home.
Slipping into the battle group for the second time alongside HMS Northumberland and tanker RFA Tideforce is the Norwegian Navy’s newest frigate HNoMS Thor Heyerdahl as the Westlant 19 deployment ends as it began: a spot of NATO action.
The curtain raised on the deployment in September with a NATO anti-submarine exercise, Cutlass Fury, hosted by the Canadians and it ends with yet more combined NATO/anti-submarine warfare training in the Western Atlantic.
It’s the last act of a busy three months away for the Portsmouth-based carrier which hosted British F-35 Lightning jets for the first time at sea – followed by US Marine Corps doing the very same.
The future flagship embarked three UK jets from 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) based at Edwards Air Force Base in California, as well as three which crossed the Atlantic from RAF Marham.
The 5 week operational test phase, headed up by the Air Warfare Centre, was designed to provide ‘end-to-end’ testing of the jets and the combined Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel who operate and support the squadrons.
The tests included: mission briefs; preparation of the jets – including arming them using the ship’s unique automated weapon handling system; launching; fighting the mission (including weapons drops) and returning to Queen Elizabeth.
The training reached its climax with four UK Lightnings launched from the deck within seconds of each other to fight their mission.
At the same time USMC F-35s flew to and from the ship, exercising their processes ahead of a detachment deploying alongside UK jets on the carrier’s maiden operational deployment in 2021.
Supporting the strike group throughout have been Merlin helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron based at Culdrose, providing anti-submarine protection and search and rescue capability and 845 Naval Air Squadron acting as ‘workhorses’, transporting stores and equipment, providing rescue cover and also landing Royal Marines from Lima Company, 42 Commando, to practise saving personnel from behind enemy lines. A Merlin from 814 NAS and Wildcat from 815 completed the Air Group.