HMS Prince of Wales takes first steps towards front-line operations
The flight deck of HMS Prince of Wales is buzzing with air power again – as the Royal Navy generates a second 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier ready for front-line operations.
The Portsmouth-based warship has spent much of her first fortnight back at sea in the relatively sheltered waters of Lyme Bay conducting aviation trials with the RAF and Commando Helicopter Force.
The ship’s company has changed substantially since she last sailed in the spring of 2020 – and since her flight deck last welcomed helicopters, so it’s been a mix of brushing up on old skills and new experiences for a good number of sailors.
Those on the upper deck were treated to the impressive sight of a unique RAF Chinook, proudly sporting a Union Jack tail to celebrate its 40th anniversary in UK service, touching down.
The Boeing-built helicopter entered service with the air force in November 1980 and has seen action in every major conflict involving the nation’s armed forces since.
ZD984 from 27 Squadron at RAF Odiham has just emerged from a maintenance period, during which the impressive paint job was applied. She’ll support the RAF’s Chinook display team at air shows around the UK as the nation shakes off the shackles of lockdown – as well as more regular military duties such as this visit to the Royal Navy off the Devonshire coast.
The Queen Elizabeth-class is unique in its ability to stow a Chinook in its hangar (though it didn’t on this occasion).
But if required, the 99ft-long aircraft can be manoeuvred on to one of the carrier’s two powerful lifts – capable of bearing the load of two F-35 jets or around 350 sailors – and lowered to the hangar deck.
So large are the lifts and hangar spaces on the new carrier – which sailed from her Portsmouth home for renewed trials earlier this month – that both can accommodate the Chinook (its nose does poke over the end of the lift).
ZD984 is not the only ‘wocca-wocca’ to make use of HMS Prince of Wales’ expansive flight deck; 7 Squadron’s Chinooks have also been helping to train the carrier’s air department alongside commando-carrying Merlins of 846 Naval Air Squadron from RNAS Yeovilton.
“It’s fantastic to be back at sea operating numerous aircraft types from all three Services,” said ‘Wings’, Commander Phil Beacham, in charge of aviation operations aboard the carrier.
“The ship has a combination of highly-experienced air department personnel – and much-less-experienced sailors across other departments.
“This essential sea period is giving our new sailors crucial maritime aviation experience, moving Prince of Wales towards her full operational capability and helping to build the future Royal Navy.”
During lockdown, the bay has become an anchorage for a sizeable chunk of the cruise industry – at least five major liners right now, including the Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 (149,000 tonnes) and Queen Victoria (90,000 tonnes).
The carrier’s seaman specialists have been making use of the two Cunarders, practising various seaboat operations and manoeuvres in the shadow of the impressive liners in their Pacific 24 boats (about two tonnes).
After completing her training in Lyme Bay the ship headed out into the open waters of the Channel and her first top of fuel and supplies since leaving Portsmouth, courtesy of tanker RFA Tiderace – together more than 100,000 tonnes of naval might moving through the water on parallel courses just 50 metres apart.
After the much-publicised first encounter at sea with her big sister HMS Queen Elizabeth, regular training resumed with Merlin helicopters of 824 Naval Air Squadron making use of the carrier to practise refuelling skills.
The Culdrose-based squadron feeds its front-line counterparts 820 (deployed on the flagship for her maiden operation) and 814 (which provides frigates with Merlin flights and meets all other missions expected of the anti-submarine helicopter) with qualified air and ground crew.
The latest trainee aircrew undergoing the 44-week Merlin conversion course dropped in on the carrier to hone inflight refuelling skills – topping up the tanks either without landing, or by touching down but keeping the rotors running. Both are a challenging test for ship’s aircraft handlers as well as the fliers.
To keep up morale, the ship’s TV studio has hosted its first ‘show’ for shipmates (a whole-ship quiz), and with the cavernous hangar briefly empty between helicopter visits, it’s been used as a dodgeball/bucketball arena.
“People join the Royal Navy because it’s a way of life, not just a 9 to 5 job. Therefore it’s important to find opportunities where we can to maintain the balance between operational output and relaxing whilst deployed and events like these are a great opportunity to have some fun,” said First Lieutenant Lieutenant Commander Laura Mullin.