The British Royal Navy is a step closer to getting a fighter wing for its new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers after the F-35B Lightning II made a successful take off from a ski-jump on June 19 at Naval Air Station in Patuxent River, Maryland. The vertical and/or short take-off and landing (VSTOL) variant of the F-35B is being jointly tested by an Anglo-American team as part of the program to bring the aircraft into service with the Royal Navy and the US Marine Corps.

According to the British Ministry of Defence, the tests conducted by the F-35 Lightning II Pax River Integrated Test Force represent a crucial phase in certifying the aircraft for RN carrier operations. Unlike US carriers, which use catapults to launch aircraft, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will use a ski-jump deck similar to that on the out-going Invincible class carriers.

This means that the F-35B uses its downward engine thrust and lift fan to push it off the upward-curving jump; propelling it up and forward into the air. This arrangement allows for carrying heavier loads at slower takeoff speeds, and, with the fifth-generation stealth fighter's vertical landing ability, allows for safer simultaneous takeoff and landing operations from shorter flight decks. In addition, the F-35B can automatically configure itself for takeoff, which the Ministry says is an improvement on previous VSTOL aircraft.

"As expected, aircraft BF-04 performed well and I can't wait until we're conducting F-35 ski jumps from the deck of the Queen Elizabeth carrier," says Peter Wilson, the BAE Systems test pilot and ski-jump project lead. "Until then, the de-risking that we're able to achieve now during phase I of our ski-jump testing will equip us with valuable data we'll use to fuel our phase II efforts."

Phase I testing will continue until later this year.