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20 Feb 2024

Jets land on HMS Prince of Wales as Carrier Strike Groups starts to assemble

Jets land on HMS Prince of Wales as Carrier Strike Groups starts to assemble
UK MOD ' Crown copyright 2024
Royal Navy Press Release
The UK’s most advanced air power – F-35 Lightning stealth fighters – have embarked on HMS Prince of Wales as the carrier prepares to join NATO allies on its biggest exercise in decades.

For the first time, the 65,000-tonne ship will host UK Carrier Strike Group battlestaff as she takes a central role in Exercise Steadfast Defender.

The F-35 fighter jets of joint RAF and Royal Navy 617 Squadron, ‘the Dambusters’ landed on the aircraft carrier while she was sailing in the North Sea after leaving their home base of RAF Marham, in Norfolk.

The jets comprise just one element of the powerful UK Carrier Strike Group which also includes 11 helicopters deployed across the group, Royal Navy escort ships and support vessels from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary including frigate HMS Portland and tanker RFA Tidesurge.

It will lead an international task force taking part in Steadfast Defender – an exercise across multiple regions and domains from land and sea to air and space.
Spanning several months and thousands of kilometres, it will see tens of thousands of personnel work together to showcase NATO’s ability to deter enemies and defend allied territory.

Captain Colin McGannity, Carrier Air Wing and Strike Warfare Commander (better known as “CAG”), watched the F-35s landing.

He said: “It is always an exciting moment when F-35B Lightning join the Carrier Strike Group at sea. These fifth-generation aircraft are the main strike element of the group.

“Once again, we will be integrating them and the rest of the Carrier Air Wing with our NATO Allies and partners. There’s plenty of work ahead of us but I have every confidence that our talented and dedicated team will succeed.

“It’s winter in the North Atlantic and we will face harsh weather and freezing conditions, but we are well prepared and looking forward to demonstrating our readiness to fight, whenever and wherever we get the call.”

HMS Prince of Wales, which was deployed at short notice to replace HMS Queen Elizabeth, spent much of autumn last year working with F-35 jets off the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.

However, Exercise Steadfast Defender will see the ship embark more jets than they ever have before.

Commander Martin Russell, Commander Air (also known as “Wings”) of HMS Prince of Wales has been preparing for the arrival of the aircraft.

“I’m really excited to see the F-35B jets of 617 Squadon embark in HMS Prince of Wales, the first time we have seen this squadron onboard, and the most F-35B jets we have operated at one time,” he said.

“My team are keen to practise what they learnt about jets during our time on Westlant 23 last year. It’s the jets that really make us an aircraft carrier and bring the flight deck to life.”

HMS Prince of Wales and her escort ships will be operating in the North Atlantic, where temperatures are expected to drop below -10C and winds to reach upwards of 40kts - providing a real test of equipment and personnel.

Engineers, support staff and aviators from 617 Squadron arrived onboard HMS Prince of Wales via RAF Chinook. This group included the Executive Officer of 617 Squadron, Lieutenant Commander Joe Mason.

He watched the Commander of Lightning Force, Group Captain John Butcher of the RAF, land onboard in one of the waves of F-35 jets.
Capt Butcher spoke of his pride on once again landing on an aircraft carrier.

“It is with immense pride that I have watched the F-35Bs of 617 Sqn “The Dambusters” embark onto HMS Prince of Wales,” he said.

“It has been a monumental effort by the ship’s company, ably supported by some from HMS Queen Elizabeth to prepare the ship for this exercise at extremely short notice, and the embarkation of the Lightning Air Wing would also not be possible without the tremendous efforts of the engineers and wider support staff back at RAF Marham, and I am hugely appreciative of all of their work.

“Today is also a personal landmark for me as it is the first time I have landed an F-35B onto a Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carrier, marking nearly 15 years since I last landed on a Royal Navy carrier.

“I am looking forward to watching the different teams aboard HMS Prince of Wales integrate further with the embarked Air Wing over the coming days as we work together to further hone the UK’s Carrier Strike capabilities.

Exercise Steadfast Defender offers a great opportunity to work alongside our NATO allies and partners in the skies over land and sea, in what will no doubt be testing environmental conditions, and my team are relishing the prospect.”

Lt Cdr Mason added: “It is great to be embarked in HMS Prince of Wales for the upcoming NATO exercise. An enormous amount of work has taken place at RAF Marham to enable us to be here and we are all looking forward to a busy few weeks."

“The High North in winter is one of the most testing environments in the world to operate in and our pilots, engineers and wider support teams are ready to embrace that challenge.”


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