RAF Marham night flying was 'uncharacteristic' as HMS Queen Elizabeth deployment strategically important for the nation
With rigorous preparations taking place for the deployment of RAF Marham aircraft on a prestigious warship, a station commander has admitted the coronavirus made this training "very, very challenging".
Group Captain Jim Beck said "uncharacteristic" night-time flying had to take place at the end of May, but it was essential to be thorough when rehearsing this work as front-line pilots prepared to meet up with HMS Queen Elizabeth this week for a training exercise.
"This will be one small step towards the strategic capability to change warfare for the welfare of the country. It is strategically so important," Group Captain Beck said as some of the aircraft from the 617 Dambusters Squadron departed RAF Marham yesterday.
Speaking about the recent training and night-time flying, he said: "Overall it was a very, very challenging period as we had just come back from work with our US partners where we just prep the jets, then Covid-19 had a big impact on what we could do. There were preventative measures restricting what we could do.
"We generated a system of staff to work to bring back key individuals and to get back in the air with a focused period starting in May and leading into June.
"Where possible we try not to fly late into the night. It is uncharacteristic to have to fly into the early hours of the morning but we only had a limited period of time due to the coronavirus.
"We have got a routine where we plot our passages for pilots to minimise the amount of houses affected. We are aware the jet is not quiet so we do what we can to minimise this."
HMS Queen Elizabeth is the lead ship of the Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carriers, the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy in the UK.
Speaking about the warship, Captain Beck said: "When you walk along the ship it is more than inspiring, it's like one of the fourth wonders of the world. It's a mini airbase with huge amounts of technology and it's a big, big deal with gargantuan capabilities.
"It is also inspiring for HMS Queen Elizabeth because these are fifth generation fighting jets really at the cutting edge of where fighting is going. These are supersonic stealth aircraft. Bring this all together and it's a big deal for the defence of the country. We are a massive player in combat air strategic punch."
There will be 120 squadron pilots and instructors from RAF Marham training on the warship with the "student, front-line" pilots ranging from 27 to 30-years-old. However, Group Captain Beck said pilots can be trained as young as 22-years-old.
These pilots will be deployed to HMS Queen Elizabeth's carrier and will practice landing on the deck, including during the night when visibility makes the skill much more challenging.
Group Captain Beck said: "There are sensors around the jet when flying in the day, you can see the sea and outside, so you get all the warnings easily. At night, you have not got any of these sensors so we have to act accordingly.
"It is not like Heathrow where there are floodlights. You have to be incredibly precise and when you hit the deck at night it really does get the heart pumping."
This is where the extensive training rehearsals are so vital with the pilots also undertaking muscle memory exercises to prepare them accordingly. Simulation is also used to create a realistic synthetic environment for the pilots to learn from.
Group Captain Beck added: "It is incredibly taxing on the body, and what is difficult is when the oxygen shield is needed to keep the body running properly. There are rigorous medical and physical exams once a year and there is a massive focus on conditioning the pilot.
"We focus on neck muscles a lot as there are unique manoeuvres where they have to retain consciousness."
A facility at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire is often used for muscle memory training.
The deployment to HMS Queen Elizabeth is the next phase of essential training for the Lightning Force in the journey to declaring Initial Operating Capability Maritime at the end of the year.
In total, there will be a compliment of four ships and roughly a thousand people involved with this operation.