The bulk of the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group today returned to their respective homes after three months in the USA.
Following HMS Dragon’s return to Portsmouth earlier this week, the aircraft carrier made her way into Portsmouth – where she was greeted by sister ship HMS Prince of Wales.
At the same time two of her escorts, HMS Northumberland and RFA Tideforce, returned to warm welcomes in Devonport. The ships’ flights made their way to their respective homes at RNAS Culdrose and Yeovilton.
The carrier strike group sailed from the UK in August to conduct operational tests with UK F-35 jets from the UK Lightning Force for the first time.
Supporting the strike group units throughout were Merlin helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron based out of RNAS Culdrose, providing anti-submarine protection and search-and-rescue (SAR) capability.
Commando Merlins from 845 Naval Air Squadron acted as the aviation workhorses, transporting stores and equipment, providing SAR cover and also landing Royal Marines from 42 Commando’s Lima Company to rehearse how to rescue downed pilots. Merlins from 814 NAS and Wildcat from 815 completed the air group.
The Commanding Officer of HMS Queen Elizabeth, Captain Steve Moorhouse said: “Homecomings are always a special occasion, but to be returning to Portsmouth with HMS Prince of Wales welcoming us home makes this a particularly special occasion.
“This has been an extremely successful deployment for HMS Queen Elizabeth. Embarking UK F-35 Lightning jets for the first time and integrating them within the carrier strike group is a significant milestone and we are well set for an equally demanding 2020 and our first operational deployment in 2021.”
Commander of the Air Group, Captain James Blackmore, added: “The five-week period of operational tests with UK F-35s from the UK Lightning Force was significant and historic. As the last pilot to fly Harrier from the deck of HMS Ark Royal in 2010, it filled me with tremendous pride to see UK fixed wing aircraft operate once more from a British carrier.”
HMS Northumberland, which deployed ahead of the rest of the strike group, first encountered Hurricane Dorian as she arrived in Halifax. She went on to play a key role in the NATO Exercise Cutlass Fury, which involved 20 ships and 36 aircraft.
Commanding Officer of HMS Northumberland, Commander Ally Pollard said: “It has been an exciting challenge for my ship’s company, some of whom have never been to sea or deployed, and while only a short deployment it has nevertheless been demanding.”
HMS Northumberland’s Deputy Marine Engineering Officer, Lt James Jeffcoate, added: “Having served in HMS Monmouth for Westlant 18, it’s been fantastic to see the development of UK Carrier Strike. Seeing HMS Queen Elizabeth close up while HMS Northumberland escorted her has enabled us all to appreciate what an amazing piece of British engineering she really is.”
The Commanding Officer of RFA Tideforce, Captain Terrence Barke, said: “Ground-breaking milestones, first-of-class trials and unwavering professionalism of the ship’s company has truly demonstrated the capability of RFA Tideforce and her ability to extend the limits of the Royal Navy and our NATO Allies, ensuring their operational effectiveness 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”
RNAS Yeovilton welcomed back 815 NAS’s 212 Flight from HMS Dragon and 201 Flight from RFA Tideforce.
“The deployment has been my highlight as a flight commander,” said Lieutenant Jim Carver, of 201 Flight. “I joined the navy as an air engineering technician in 2005, and never for one minute thought I would become a pilot, let alone a small ship’s flight commander. It has been a privilege to lead such a well-motivated, enthusiastic and professional group of people in support of the regeneration of UK carrier strike.”