Fully armed Lt Wilson lowers himself onto HMS Queen Elizabeth

Lt. Wilson ©Royal Navy 

The Hawker Siddeley Harrier, developed in the 1960s, is the first of the Harrier Jump Jet series of aircraft that could land vertically. But since then it has taken half a century longer to land one of these vertical takeoff aircraft on an aircraft carrier fully loaded with all its weapons without hovering alongside. I’ll explain. 

SpaceX is landing its booster rockets back aboard floating launch pads, so what’s the big deal you ask? I suppose it’s a saving at the same time as being a wondrous piece of flying. To land a plane vertically on a heaving deck of a ship while fully armed with missiles and fuel totalling 2,000 pounds is what the big  deal is all about.

Previously, the Hawker would have to jettison its payload before landing by a different method, hovering alongside the aircraft carrier.  That could see hundreds of thousands of dollars being dropping into the sea if it hadn’t fired off its inventory, never mind the environmental impact over the years. 

But the other big difference is that the old fashioned Hawkers would approach the ship very much as a helicopter, hover alongside, crab over the landing area, then touch down. 

Russia developed a Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL), but it required deck nets, which is not the same as an aircraft flying to a halt using brakes on board a heaving deck. Still, the Yak-38 “Forger” became operational with the Soviet Navy in the early 1970s and had a few technical issues. One was its incredibly high fuel consumption which reduced range after being flown vertically. While it technically achieved the SRVL, the use of nets meant it was not a true example of an autonomous landing. Nets are another form of cable which catch the plane as it arrives at normal landing speed.  

Yak-38 ©US Navy 

The SRVL technique is far more difficult. The aircraft hovers behind the ship, then lands straight down the deck using its own brakes instead of dropping and flying at a measly 60 knots. Most general aviation aircraft are close to stalling at this speed, it is really slow. 

F-35B’s thrust vectoring nozzle and lift fan ©Wikipedia

The physics required and the skill to achieve this has taken more than 25 years of planning to get right. It’s taken longer to plan and carry out this landing than it took NASA to plan and conduct the latest Mars Landing called InSight. 

And for codgers flying about like me, this story is motivational. That’s because the United States Civil Air Patrol was involved, which features mainly retired pilots who continue to fly on various duties for the nation. 

CAP Maryland Wing 2nd Lt. Peter Wilson is the hero of this story, and his tale is fascinating. He was flying the Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighter and landed on the deck of the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. What he achieved was fairly simple in terms of the goal. The land the F-35B straight down the runway, without a wire and hook, and carrying more than 2,000 pounds of weapons and fuel. It was fully loaded.

Lockheed Martin F-35B 

Lieutenant Wilson has been directly involved in training for this one landing since 2006. That’s when he and his family moved from the UK to Texas to be closer to the Lockheed Martin aircraft factory. They moved again to Maryland to be near the Pax River Naval Air Station.

But he started working on the project even before training formally started. For over twenty years he’s worked as a test pilot for BAE systems, and much of his time at the company has been focused on achieving the feat of a SRVL.

So on October 14 2018, he donned his kit, climbed aboard the F-35B which was fully fuelled and armed, took off in the usual way (being slung into the heavens), then flew back to the HMS Queen Elizabeth and landed on deck without a cable, braked, stopped. Wiped sweat from his brow. 

HMS Queen Elizabeth ©Wikipedia

As pilots, we use lights to guide is in for visual landings, they’re called PAPIs. Precision Approach Path Indicator. In the case of Lt Wilson, the PAPIs were a range of lights on board the deck of the HMS Queen Elizabeth.

There are  21 pairs of lights embedded in the ship’s runway centre line, where the pilot sees red lights marking the beginning and end of the touchdown zone. He/She must then aim at a single pair of white lights that show them where to land on the heaving deck. As the bow rises, the lights move further forward, as it falls, they move further back.  

The view from Lt Wilson’s aircraft of the light array on board HMS Queen Elizabeth. 

After Wilson landed, a second test pilot flew off and completed the same test successfully. The UK is now working on making this process operational which could save the Navy millions of dollars over the next few years as it flights Vertical aircraft into missions. 

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