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WO1 Nick Downs aboard the USS Harry S Truman
WO1 Nick Downs aboard the USS Harry S Truman

HMS Queen Elizabeth sailor directs fast jet operations on US carrier

Published: 08 Apr 2014

One of HMS Queen Elizabeth’s most senior sailors spent two weeks aboard an American carrier on operations in the Gulf to help pave the way for Britain’s biggest warship.

WO1 Nick Downs flew aboard the USS Harry S Truman as the American carrier launched air strikes over Afghanistan in support of Allied forces on the ground.

As ‘captain of the flight deck’ he’s in charge of all Queen Elizabeth’s aircraft handlers – the men and women who will marshal the ship’s F35 Lightning II jets and Merlin helicopters around a flight deck more than twice the size of Wembley Stadium’s pitch.

He joined the Truman as part of a long-term link-up with the US Navy to train Royal Navy personnel for the arrival of Queen Elizabeth and her sister Prince of Wales.Royal Navy and RAF air and ground crew are training to fly and maintain the F35 Lightning II jets in the States.

And a succession of flight deck teams have been serving aboard US flat-tops to gain an insight into operations on a traditional-style aircraft carrier – the latest of them spending eight months on the Truman and her front-line deployment in the Middle East.

WO1 Downs was impressed by the way those half dozen Brits – led by CPO(AH) Nathan Milner and labelled “awesome” by the Truman’s aircraft handling officer – had settled in to life on a big deck carrier.

He takes up the story:

“It quickly became apparent how well respected the British aircraft handlers were by their US counterparts: the chief petty officer and leading aircraft handlers were in charge of their respective areas (known as flies), and by this stage were teaching some of the American deck crews how to do their job.

“I was struck by the tempo, the sheer noise and speed of operations on a large carrier which hasn’t been seen on a UK ship for over 30 years but will be brought to life again on HMS Queen Elizabeth.”

Apart from the scale of the operation, I was struck by the long hours US sailors are expected to work – on average 16 hour days on deck, further exacerbated by the Gulf sun and the size of the flight deck.

The large number of airframes – some 67 aircraft spread across eight different squadrons – was dwarfed by the number of personnel aboard. To put it into context, a Queen Elizabeth-class carrier has a total ship’s company of 674; the USS Harry S Truman has an air department of 711 alone, and a total compliment – including the air group – of 4,500.

This large number of personnel moved around the flight deck with a nonchalant air, ducking under F18 jet exhausts and avoiding live weapons without a thought.

The majority of aircraft worked with live ordinance as the HST was, after all, still supporting operations in Afghanistan.

The careful choreography of the launch and recovery sequences was impressive, but the noise and violence of conventional operations is breathtaking.

During Operation Enduring Freedom – the American codename for the war in Afghanistan – up to the point of our departure, USS HST had dropped bombs totalling 16,500lb (nearly 7,500kg), a fraction compared with previous deployments but a poignant reminder that operations are ongoing – and a real demonstration of how, even in a landlocked country, power projection from the sea can have a major influence on land operations.

One area in particular was a real hive of activity: the hangar, which is roughly the same size as on the Queen Elizabeth.

The usual aircraft maintenance was going on while around the large airframes personnel took part in recreational physical training circuits.

Every Wednesday the ship would replenish at sea to take on supplies, which was done straight into the hangar – as it will be on HMS Queen Elizabeth – where the stores party used forklifts and multiple stores lifts on the hangar deck to stow supplies.

This drastically reduced the manpower burden. It took 100 people two to three days to ‘store ship’ on our Invincible-class carriers. Current estimates are that it will take 20 people about half a day on HMS Queen Elizabeth because of the efficient design of storing points, lifts and stores.

With the emphasis on work, the flight deck crews work long days – there isn’t much down time, and so little thought is given to mess decks on US carriers.

The majority of the accommodation was very bare with little or no recreation spaces; by comparison Queen Elizabeth has large recreation spaces for all ranks and rates, and the majority of accommodation has been placed well below the noise of the flight deck down on 6 and 7 decks, increasing the chance of a good night’s sleep.

After two weeks on the Truman I left with an admiration for the hard work and commitment her crew showed, the hospitality given was warm and generous, demonstrated by an air department clear lower deck.

Achievement citations and medals were awarded to the Royal Navy airmen by the Truman’s Commanding Officer, Capt Bob Roth.

“The Long Lead Specialist Skills programme gives a fantastic opportunity to get an insight into the workings of the US Navy’s largest warships and their way of doing business which has proved to be a real boost to maintaining the required skills and experience for our people to enable us to develop our new generation of aircraft carriers.”


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