F-35 fully loaded for first time on HMS Queen Elizabeth

A British F-35 Lightning stealth fighter ‘tooled up’ for the first time on the deck of a Royal Navy aircraft carrier.

Loaded on to this state-of-the-art jet from 17 (Test and Evaluation) is the weaponry it would typically carry on a strike mission: 22,000lb of destructive and defensive power.

In this case the ‘bombheads’ on HMS Queen Elizabeth – red-surcout-wearing air engineer technicians – carefully loaded inert Paveway laser-guided bombs and ASRAAM air-to-air missiles (for taking out aerial threats) on to the external pylons and bomb bay.

Fully-loaded, it’s known as “beast mode” by crews because of the firepower it delivers – nearly three times more than a Harrier, and as much as the heaviest payload carried by a WW2 Lancaster bomber (a Grand Slam or ‘earthquake’ bomb.

To keep numbers of personnel on board the ship to a minimum, most of the process of getting the firepower from the magazines in the bowels of the 65,000-tonne warship to the flight deck is automated.

Instead the Highly Mechanised Weapon Handling System – unique to the Queen Elizabeth class – uses a network of tracks, upon which a number of weapon-carrying mechanical ‘moles’ move, remotely controlled from operator consoles.

The moles carry weapon loads on pallets to the ship’s weapon preparation areas or hangar via a system of hydraulic lifts which run through the heart of the carrier.

The system is highly automated – and fitted with safety features to prevent any wrong moves.

Once the air weapons have been prepared by technicians in the preparation areas, they are moved to the flight deck via another set of lifts, from where they can be wheeled on trolleys to the aircraft themselves.

A system like this has never been fitted to a ship before and allows weapon moves with far fewer people involved than more traditional manual handling methods, supporting a greater rate of weapon re-supply to aircraft and therefore a better mission sortie rate.

Six F-35s are now embarked on the future flagship off the East Coast of the USA, plus Merlin helicopters of 820 NAS (providing anti-submarine warfare protection) and 845 (general duties, search and rescue, commando carrying) as the Carrier Air Group hones its skills for the first time, building up to HMS Queen Elizabeth’s maiden deployment in 2021.