The gray outline of a Marine V-22 Osprey drops out of the sky to take up position beside the flight deck of Britain’s biggest aircraft carrier.
With a spotter hanging from its open doorway, the American test pilot swings the tail of the aircraft around and lowers it vertically to a pin point landing in the rear corner of the H.M.S. Prince of Wales.
The flight deck already bears the scorch marks from dozens of landings by F-35 fighter jets from weeks of testing.
A day earlier, a Mojave unmanned aircraft took off and landed — the largest drone ever to fly from a European ship.
This is the future of maritime warfare. Two allies with interchangeable hardware working together to extend their range and capabilities.
H.M.S. Prince of Wales is the Royal Navy’s newest aircraft carrier and its biggest warship. It has been off the eastern seaboard of the U.S. since September, training with American aircrews
An American MV-22 Osprey, from test squadron HX-21, comes into land on the flight deck with its unique tilt-rotor design. The testing is all part of extending the Royal Navy’s capabilities
‘As we go and have a tilt towards the I.N.D.O.P.A.C.O.M. area where the geography and the range of those assets, you are talking about vast amount of space … the utility of those airframes is immense,’ Capt. Richard Hewitt told DailyMail.com, using an acronym for the Indo-Pacific command.
For two decades, the West’s fighting forces were focused on battling insurgents on Afghan mountainsides or dotted through dusty villages in the Middle East.
Today the center of attention is increasingly China and its muscular efforts to increase its influence in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific.
The Prince of Wales will soon be a key part of that geopolitical tussle.
Next year she takes over from her sister ship, H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth, in the role of Britain’s ‘very high readiness’ carrier. A year later, she is expected to lead a carrier strike deployment into the region.
She has been off the east coast of the U.S. since September, working with U.S. test pilots.
Some of the most thrilling moments came with the F-35s operating in ‘beast mode’ – loaded up 22,000lb of destructive power, including air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles.
They carried out their first ‘rolling’ landings, approaching the flight deck slowly to land, instead of using their ability to hover alongside the ship before setting themselves down vertically.
It means they can return to the carrier more heavily laden, instead of jettisoning unused fuel or expensive munitions.
Capt. Richard Hewitt said it was a tribute to the ship’s company that it was working with U.S. forces in the North Atlantic so soon after leaving dry dock
The unique shape of the Osprey is easily recognisable. It can take off vertically like a helicopter, before tilting its rotors forward to fly like a fixed-wing aircraft
A crewmember keeps an eye out as the Osprey approaches the flight deck
H.M.S. Prince of Wales has two ‘islands.’ The flight control tower is aft, with the bridge and captain’s quarters at the front. The aft island can command the ship if the bridge is damaged
‘We had it coming in sideways,’ said Hewitt. ‘We had it landing with full fuel.’
The Prince of Wales and her sister are Britain’s biggest ever warships. At 920 ft in length (the crew of the Prince of Wales like to say that theirs is actually three feet longer than HMS Queen Elizabeth despite being built to the same design) and 230 ft in breadth, its central hangar can hold two of the Royal Navy’s frigates.
But the path to exercises about 100 miles off the North Carolina has not been easy. For a decade, in the 2010s, what once the world’s biggest navy had no aircraft carriers at all.
And the decision to spend almost $8 billion on two Queen Elizabeth class vessels looked like a mistake last year. Five years after being launched the Prince of Wales broke down en route to exercises with the U.S. Navy.
A problem with her right propeller shaft saw her in dry dock for almost a year, triggering inaccurate headlines that she was being mothballed.
Now she is back and a key part of Royal Navy efforts to punch above its weight, one of two platforms that can work closely with NATO allies.
Hewitt said like the warplanes it is designed to carry, it is a fifth generation warship. Its upper decks are designed to get flight crews to aircraft as efficiently as possible, while lower decks are kitted out with automated and autonomous systems that can be operated with a slimmed down crew.
The flight deck is coated with paint that can withstand 2700F
The captain’s collection of challenge coins. H.M.S. Prince of Wales arrived off the U.S. coast since September, working with American pilots
The ship’s firefighters take part in a drill. Training never ends aboard the ship
Lt. James Holton is the ship’s second navigator. He is pictured here on the bridge
On Wednesday she made a little bit of history with the launch of the biggest ever drone from a European warship.
General Atomics’ Mojave is based on the Reaper drone. But it can land on a short runway in tricky conditions even with a 56-foot wingspan.
Rear Adm. James Parkin, who planned the test, said: ‘The success of this trial heralds a new dawn in how we conduct maritime aviation and is another exciting step in the evolution of the Royal Navy’s carrier strike group into a mixed crewed and uncrewed fighting force.’
For the ship’s crew, the chance to watch fully loaded F-35s coming and going in ‘beast’ mode was the highlight.
On the bridge Lt. James Holton, second navigator, said: ‘I hate to say it but everyone was humming the tune to “Top Gun.” It really was a sight to behold.’
In front of him an electronic display showed a gentle wind coming from the port side. The quartermaster sat at the central control panel, making tiny adjustments to keep the 65,000-tonne ship on course to keep conditions constant for the Osprey coming in to land.
‘Check quarters,’ came the call from the first officer of the watch, standing at his usual position at the center of the bridge.
‘Port clear,’ comes the response from one side, mirrored by a lookout on the other.
The Osprey, with its two wings and unique tilt rotors directed up for maximum lift, touched down on deck soon after.
It is Cmdr. Richie Welsh’s responsibility to make sure a U.S. Marine Corps Osprey can be moved around the hangar safely and efficiently, so that maintenance crews can do their work
A Royal Navy Wildcat helicopter is maneuvered through the vast hangar, past a Merlin aircraft parker on the left hand side. The space is so big it could fit the length of two frigates
The final test was to come the following day: How to park it!
In the gloom of the cavernous hangar below, Cdr. Richie Welsh had done the table-top planning and the walk-throughs.
The final step would be to bring an Osprey down in the vast aircraft lift, and move it around to make sure that it actually fits where it needs to fit.
It changes the carrier from being a ‘lily pad,’ with aircraft simply hopping on and off, to serving as a base for American Osprey squadrons.
‘It will give us an opportunity of making sure it fits into all of the services needed to maintain them,’ he said.