Nimitz and company help Dragon prepare for new RN Carriers

A Royal Navy warship has been getting ready for the arrival of the country’s latest and largest military vessels by working alongside one of the US Navy’s mighty aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Oman.

The Type 45 destroyer HMS Dragon joined the USS Nimitz and her carrier battle group as they conducted maritime security operations and offered support to US forces involved in Operation Enduring Freedom.

Joining the group straight after a two-week refit and maintenance stop in Dubai, Dragon and her crew spent several days working with the battle group, providing air defence and allowing her crew to get used to operating with lots of aircraft in the vicinity.

The sheer range of aircraft encountered by Dragon and her crew during this period was far from usual; flying about in the skies above the two ships were F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and F/A-18C Hornet strike fighters, EA-6B Prowlers for electronic warfare; E-2C Hawkeyes used for airborne early warning; C-2 Greyhounds used for logistics; and a Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron of SH-60F and HH-60H Seahawks.

Working so closely with the Nimitz and Carrier Air Wing 11 has been a superb and unique opportunity and has definitely been the highlight of my Royal Navy exchange so far.

Flying Officer David Bowl, RAF

Key to making order out of this controlled aerial chaos was one of Dragon’s Fighter Controllers, Flying Officer David Bowl, an RAF officer embarked in Dragon for her deployment. 

It is his job to ensure that the skies are a safe place to be and that the Carrier battle Group is provided with an understanding of everything that is in the air surrounding the battle group – be it friend or foe.

He said: “Working so closely with the Nimitz and Carrier Air Wing 11 has been a superb and unique opportunity and has definitely been the highlight of my Royal Navy exchange so far.”

Dragon also practised some special ship manoeuvres and set pieces that are only applicable when working with a carrier operating fast jets at sea. 

One such job included acting as a ‘Horizon Reference’ for incoming aircraft – standing off about 4,000 yards astern of the mighty carrier and adopting a special lighting configuration to help guide pilots on to the Nimitz’s flight deck.

Once Dragon took up her station each night, a procession of up to 30 jets every night flashed overhead, cruising straight over the Type 45 with a roar of jet engines as they lined up for a high-speed landing on a narrow flight deck already crowded with other aircraft. 

The bridge and Operations room teams listened intently to the pilots with bated breath as they flew down the glide path to touch down on deck with full afterburners applied -just in case the arrestor hook does not catch and they have to ‘bolt’ through to launch again. 

These flying operations, providing essential experience to a new generation of sailors, will become all too familiar in the future when HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales operate F-35 Lightning fast jets when the carriers come in to service in a few years’ time.

As well as all the fast-jet flying operations, Dragon and her crew kept finding exciting new opportunities to train and build a working with relationship with their American colleagues. 

For example, close cooperation between the Royal Marines on HMS Dragon and the Explosives Ordnance Disposal team on USS Nimitz revealed a shared need to practice fast-roping – rapidly deploying teams from a helicopter onto the deck of a vessel.

Keen to support the teams’ continuous training, and to operate with, and learn from, the US team, HMS Dragon put herself forward as a boarding platform and the EOD team seized the unique opportunity to ‘land’ onto a Type 45, spending time dropping from the helicopter on to the ship before ‘securing’ the flight deck.

Members of Dragon’s crew also took the chance to pay a visit to the Nimitz, spending time on board and being given a taste of life on a fully-operational supercarrier as a glimpse of things to come when the Queen Elizabeth-class come in to the fleet. 

LCIS Rachel Thom said: “While I’ve been on an American Carrier before [USS Harry S. Truman, 2008] this was a much better experience. 

“We saw aircraft taking off and landing whilst we were on the flight deck and the air and ground crew made it look very easy. 

"Memorable things for me were the size of the ship, just huge, and the noise, even with ear defenders on the sound of an aircraft taking off and landing was tremendous.”

In return, Dragon was visited by a high-powered team from Combined Task Force 50 - the command element for the Nimitz’s battle group – including Carrier Strike Group 11’s commander Rear Admiral Michael S White, and the Captains of both USS Nimitz and USS Princeton. 

At the end of the visit, Rear Admiral White left HMS Dragon impressed with both the speed and ease with which she had integrated into the group.

Capt John Clausen, the Task Force’s Air Defence Commander, added: “Air Defence is a team sport, and the dedication and support provided by HMS Dragon as part of our efforts are greatly appreciated. 

“We are fortunate to have partners with whom we can join at sea and who are ready and able to seamlessly integrate with us to protect the force and accomplish our mission.”

Dragon ended her time with the task group with a Replenishment at Sea, or RAS, with the USNS Rainier. After waiting for the Nimitz to fill up with aviation fuel, it was Dragon’s turn to come up beside the Rainier and top up her tank. 

Any RAS is a tense situation, requiring pinpoint precision on the part of both the bridge team and the crew on deck waiting to connect the fuelling lines. 

On the bridge, Officer of the Watch Lt Tom Musgrave, closely supervised by the Navigator, controlled the ship as she came up alongside the tanker ready for lines to be passed.

Lt Musgrave said: “Whilst this was valuable training for me, I also understood that it was a time-critical RAS and that if we got the approach wrong there would be significant operational implications.

“All units have onward programs to support and if I can help HMS Dragon to achieve success on operations then I’ve done my job. Certainly, when it comes to ship handling, there is no margin for error.”

Some two hours and 400 tonnes of fuel later the ships parted company and Dragon returned to her station, using her powerful radar sensors and sophisticated communication systems to control the air space around the Carrier.

HMS Dragon will now return to the Gulf to continue maintaining Britain’s interests in the region. Here, she will work closely with the Gulf Cooperation Council members to develop an understanding of the intricate patterns of life in this complex region.