Culdrose trains flight deck teams for future carriers

Flight deck teams at Culdrose are training 70 sailors to ensure F-35 jets, and Merlin, Chinook, Apache and Wildcat helicopters are safely marshalled around the Navy’s two new carriers.

Fourteen working Harrier jump jets – their engines limited so they don’t take off – give aircraft handlers the experience of the noise, smells and jet blast of a busy deck.

This is a Sea Harrier of 899 Naval Air Squadron leaving a Sea King behind in a blur on the standings at Culdrose.

And just out of shot, the jump jet grinds to a halt with a high-pitched whine as its Pegasus turbofan winds down.

Although the Harrier was axed at the end of 2010 following the last defence review and its successor, the F-35 Lightning II, won’t fly from the deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth until 2018, the RN School of Flight Deck Operations is maintaining the skills needed to safely marshal multi-million-pound strike fighters around a flight deck, launch them, and recover them.

Every naval airman comes through here for the experience of moving working jets around, the noise, the weather, the reduced communications.

Lieutenant Commander Dave Dougan, Flight Deck School

Each of the two new carriers will need a 70-strong flight deck team directing operations – four officers, six senior and 60 junior rates.

The school uses a mock-up of an Invincible-class carrier flight deck, with a limiter on the engine keeping the 14 single and twin-seat Harrier rooted to the Cornish tarmac.

The F-35B is longer, wider (10ft greater wingspan) and twice as heavy as the Harrier, but shepherding and directing working jets does give you all the indispensable parts of the carrier experience.

The existing ‘dummy deck’ will require rebuilding for the Queen Elizabeths, whose flight decks are more than twice the size of their forerunners.

The school doesn’t need the entire flight deck, but it does need a section recreating – a 140-metre-long section from the aft island to the stern (including one of the ship’s two lifts), and 70 metres across; it’s the width, more than the length, of the new carriers which is likely to catch people out.

The school uses simulators for some of its instruction to teams on small ships, but for the carrier experience you need a heavy dose of reality.

“You still need a jet trundling along for that realistic feeling that you are on a flight deck,” said Lt Cdr Dave Dougan, formerly flight deck officer on HMS Illustrious and now in charge of the flight deck school.

"Every naval airman comes through here for the experience of moving working jets around, the noise, the weather, the reduced communications."

The first handlers are due to join HMS Queen Elizabeth early next year, followed by the bulk of the deck teams in the summer of 2016, ready for her sea trials. The ship will work with helicopters for the first 18 months of her life before the Lightning IIs come aboard in 2018.

"A lot of the team are itching to get on the Queen Elizabeth – as a branch we want to go to sea, we want to be on a flight deck and operating aircraft," Lt Cdr Dougan said.

Read March’s Navy News, out next week, for the full feature.

Images taken by PO(Phot) Paul A’Barrow.