USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) (IKE) is one of several U.S. Navy ships training British Sailors on large-deck flight operations as the United Kingdom prepares to launch the first Royal Navy aircraft carrier in more than 30 years.
The US-UK Long Lead Specialist Skills Program (LLSSP) commenced in early 2013 with British Sailors aboard IKE and Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3). The program is an opportunity for British Sailors to regain operational experience at sea while their carriers are under construction.
“The training the guys have received on board is second to none,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jon Llewellyn, aircraft handling and crash rescue firefighting staff officer at British fleet headquarters. “It’s absolutely thorough, professional and valid. They’re gaining experience out on the deck, which would be impossible for us to replicate in the UK at the moment.”
The British carriers under construction are the result of a strategic defense review by the British government in 1998, which called for a return to aircraft carriers. The first of the Queen Elizabeth class carriers will be 65,000-ton HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08), which will utilize the new F-35B Lightning II vertical take-off and landing aircraft. It is scheduled for sea trials in 2017.
LLSSP is training British Sailors in flight deck operations, maintenance and weapons handling to expose UK personnel to all facets of fixed wing and rotary wing aviation.
The program helps fulfill a joint-signed Statement of Intent on Enhanced Cooperation on Carrier Operations by the U.S. Secretary of Defense and the UK Secretary of State for Defence in January 2012. The statement of intent provides guidance to “ensure the generation, training, operation and sustainability of carrier forces are effective and reflect maximum interoperability and synergy of maritime power projection.”
“It brings our two Navies, and countries, and forces together,” said Lt. John Firth, UK liaison officer with Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 8, currently deployed with IKE. “Rather than being two Navies operating in a separate way, we’re actually two Navies that can come together and rely on each other.”
The British pioneered carrier development between World War I and World War II. The HMS Hermes (95), commissioned in 1924, was the first aircraft carrier to have a full-length flight deck and a starboard side control tower island.
The British also helped develop angled flight decks, steam catapults and arresting gear. The last Royal Navy carrier to have these features was HMS Ark Royal (R09), which was decommissioned in 1980.
“I think it’s one of these things that’s an ongoing cycle,” Firth said. “We’ve pretty much come full circle now that we taught you originally how to do the big deck angled flight deck operations and now you’re passing it back to us.”
The program is expected to run six to eight years, eventually involving more than 300 Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel. Those currently involved in the training program are intimately familiar with aircraft, each having an average of 10 or more years of experience. The program allows them to learn new elements of aircraft operation, such as how to coordinate launching and recovering a large number of aircraft in cyclical operations.
“They’re learning the space and number of aircraft involved and the actual choreography of moving the aircraft around,” Firth said. “It really is very complicated what they’re doing and requires a lot of training and experience.”
The four British Sailors aboard Eisenhower said they’ve used their time on the ship to soak up as much information as possible.
“It’s been intense, very intense at times,” Royal Navy Aircraft Handler 1st Class Mark Chapman said. “Tiring, but I think we’ve adapted to it slowly but surely.”
“We’ll be where we want to be by the time we leave,” Royal Navy Aircraft Handler 1st Class Raymond Richardson said.
Firth said most American Sailors he’s spoken with have been impressed with the progress of the British Sailors, saying their knowledge rivals those who’ve served multiple deployments.
The depth of that progress was demonstrated May 12, 2013 when Royal Navy Chief Petty Officer Aircraft Handler Stacy Gager became the first ever Royal Navy Sailor to qualify as an aircraft director aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier.
Royal Navy Aircraft Handler 1st Class Graeme Robinson said the program is a reflection of the nature of the U.S. and UK’s special relationship as well as a look into the future of interoperability between nations.
“Britain and America have always worked together,” Robinson said. “It’s just to continue that relationship, taking it forward.”
Press Release, May 19, 2013