Not 24 hours after the second of the UK’s new aircraft carriers sailed into open waters for the first time, a Merlin helicopter was guided safely into land on the expansive deck.
For the first time in 50 years the announcement: “Hands to Flying Stations” echoed throughout the 280-metre-long warship and specialist aircraft handlers, who’ve spent the past year practising for this day on a replica flight deck on land at Culdrose in Cornwall, readied to welcome the helicopter.
At 1115am, Leading Aircraft Handler Stephen Ashcroft guided the helicopter – callsign Dolphin 14 – safely down on to four acres of sovereign British territory just off the east coast of Scotland.
At the controls of the Merlin Mk2 – for completists, the tail number is ZH856 – was pilot Lieutenant Rob Prior, assisted by fellow pilot Lieutenant Tim Willis, Observer (navigator/weapons and sensor specialist) Lieutenant Carl Davis, aircraft commander Lieutenant Commander Steve Ivill, aircrewman Chief Petty Officer Lee Elliott and photographer Leading Hand Alex Ceolin.
Barely had the 14-tonne submarine-hunting helicopter been lashed to the deck by the handlers than it was released to take off again.
The Merlin landed and took off six times as various problems and emergencies were practised by the air and ground crew, while HMS Prince of Wales’ air traffic controllers guided the helicopter fliers in circuits around the aircraft carrier.
Directing the inaugural landing from the second of HMS Prince of Wales two distinctive towers was the naval officer in charge of all flying operations conducted by the ship, Commander Air (aka ‘Wings’) Commander Phil Richardson.
He hailed “a momentous occasion” for the Royal Navy.
“This deck landing represents a key aviation milestone in the hugely-successful HMS Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier programme,” he added.
“The ability to fly fast jets and helicopters from two fifth-generation Royal Navy aircraft carriers puts the UK at the very forefront of maritime aviation.”
HMS Prince of Wales left Rosyth dockyard in Fife, where she has been pieced together over the past eight years, on Thursday.
After a couple of days conducting final training at anchor in the Forth – including the firefighting and emergency teams practising coping with the unlikely event of an aircraft crashing on deck – HMS Prince of Wales put to sea on Sunday, passing beneath the three bridges spanning the Forth upstream of Edinburgh.
She will spend the next couple of months completing her initial period of sea trials – with helicopters her principal link with mainland UK – before debuting in her home base of Portsmouth, where she will be commissioned before Christmas in the presence of her Lady Sponsor, the Duchess of Cornwall.