Replica training jets ensure aircraft carrier ready for safe aviation

As the nation’s future flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth put to sea for the first time in Scotland, sailors at the opposite end of the UK have been learning how to move the Carrier’s fighter jets thanks to four new arrivals in Cornwall.

Life-size replicas of the F-35 Lightning II jets, which will deliver the airborne punch of the 65,000-tonne warship, are being moved around the tarmac at RNAS Culdrose, as flight deck teams learn the art of working with the world’s most advanced warplanes.

The Royal Naval School of Flight Deck Operations has acquired four full-size models of the jump jets.

Used alongside existing jets and helicopters, aircraft handlers can practise moving and marshalling all sizes of aircraft operating the mock-up aircraft carrier flight deck, ensuring the training handlers receive before they join the new flat-top is as realistic as possible.

While they have no engines, sensors or weapons, the four replica F-35s – dubbed the ‘faux fighters’ by the team at Culdrose – will allow handlers to get used to the size and weight of the real thing – without the danger of damaging a multi-million pound stealth fighter – ahead of moving them around for real from autumn 2018.

Built from fibre-glass by Cornish firm Gate Guards UK, the ‘ground training aids’ – to give the models their official title – are fitted with water tanks which simulate fuel and weapons loads between 16 and 24 tonnes.

These four new ‘faux-fighter jets’ will take flight deck training to another level, as CPO Paul Ranson, Training Manager for all Embarked Training, explains:

“We need to provide as realistic training as possible before the trainees go to sea. Aircraft handlers are vital to the new carrier. Without them the Royal Navy cannot conduct safe aviation at sea. Flight decks are very dangerous, at sea even more so. It’s our job to protect the aircraft and the aircrew flying them. Managing the flight deck is mentally and physically challenging, so the training has to be quite rigorous and as realistic as possible.”

The addition of the four fibre-glass models to the ‘mini air force’ – which already includes unwanted Harrier jump jets and Merlin helicopters – takes training for the Queen Elizabeth to the next level.

Paul, who is soon to join HMS Queen Elizabeth himself as the Captain of the Flight Deck explained, “To be ‘carrier-ready’, we need to practise moving all different shapes and sizes of aircraft. Ninety-nine per cent of handlers have never been near an F35-B yet or moved anything nearly that large on a flight deck.

“They have been training using Sea Harrier which provide the noise and the smell, but the new aircraft are vastly different in size. The new training aids are really life-like and above all they give a sense of realism to the training here. To have these life-size replicas of the real thing is so important, invaluable actually. There is no margin for error when operating with live aircraft on a real flight deck at sea.”

Two of the replica F-35s have opening cockpits – used to practise rescuing injured pilots in a crash.

At the ‘Live Deck’ exercise today, owner of Gate Guards UK David Hobson, saw all four models together for the first time.  

David said, “It was amazing to be given the opportunity to build these training aids. It was a challenge to us; for the first time we had to put a real undercarriage on the aircraft and put water tanks inside. They are a lot bigger than what we normally do, we are used to Spitfires and Hurricanes, but it is the same principal. I’m very proud of the company and the guys that did the work. It is fantastic for a local company in Cornwall to be part of this and to have played a part in helping the new Aircraft Carrier.”  

Four of the trainee handlers on the latest course will be joining Queen Elizabeth if they pass, among them Naval Airman Christian Kershaw from Manchester.

Christian said, “Our job is all about managing the flight decks and ensuring safe aircraft launches and recovery. On the QE when you have got the jets burning and turning, it will be quite a different situation than here, but this training helps us to appreciate the size of the F35Bs.  

“The Harriers are important for gaining experience; when you stand behind one and try to do a move, it’s pretty intense, but they are much smaller. We’ve got a great job and I am looking forward to getting onto QE.”

To be ‘carrier-ready’, we need to practise moving all different shapes and sizes of aircraft.

Chief Petty Officer Paul Ranson, Training Manager for all Embarked Training