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For the first time ever a giant RAF Chinook helicopter has been stowed in the hangar of a British aircraft carrier.
So large are the lifts and hangar spaces on the new Portsmouth-based warship that there’s no need even to fold the rotors.
Their ZH902 – a special trials variant of the Chinook – was joined by a second helicopter, and two Merlins, all from the Aircraft Test and Evaluation Centre (ATEC) at MOD Boscombe Down, and a couple of Merlin Mk2s from 820 Naval Air Squadron.
All six helicopters are onboard Queen Elizabeth for trials, finding out what the operating parameters are of the airframes flying from the carrier at sea.
They were transferred to the hangar in advance of rough weather as the 65,000-tonne warship – the largest vessel ever built for the Royal Navy – made her way towards Gibraltar, keeping the helicopters out of harm’s way of the elements.
The painstaking process to bring the Chinooks in for the very first time took almost two hours, with the nosecone hanging precariously over the aircraft lift (powerful enough to raise or lower two F-35B Lightning II jets or half the 700-strong ship’s company). With practice it will take a fraction of that time.
“Even though HMS Queen Elizabeth is the biggest ship the Royal Navy has operated, she still moves around in the seas especially with the swell and winds in the infamous Bay of Biscay,” explained Cdr David Scopes, head of the carrier’s air engineering department.
“We have very precious aircraft on board at the minute, packed with special equipment to take the readings we need during our flying trials, so we have to look after them.
“As well as our non-slip decks, the aircraft brakes are supplemented by chocks on the wheels and the use of lashings between strong points on the aircraft and the deck, in carefully-calculated patterns to make sure they don’t move around and get damaged. We do this to all equipment in the hangar as we don’t want any of that being loose and hitting the aircraft either.”
The ship has faced her toughest conditions yet, transiting through the notoriously stormy conditions of the Bay of Biscay.
The feared waters whipped up to a Sea State 7 as the 65,000-tonne ship cut through, with waves of six to nine meters or more at times. The transit was watched carefully inside the ship by engineers and ship’s company to see how she handled.
“These conditions are useful for us to see how the ship handles, and to see if there are any structural issues,” said Scott Maclaren, senior sea trials manager.
“We look at whether things still work as they did before, also, how does it affect the crew? Bad weather can cause seasickness and fatigue, so we’re looking at how the human factor might be impacted. She’s a big ship though and doesn’t actually move too much. Her stability will only increase as more personnel and equipment is embarked.”
The man the command team looks to for guidance on incoming weather is Lt Matt Williams, the carrier’s hydrographical and meteorological officer. The vital information his department provides shapes the ship’s program.
“We don’t yet know what impact the conditions will have on the ship, but we do know that this sort of weather affects such things as flying and sea boat serials,” he said, speaking as the weather rolled in. “We need to keep those serials, our people and equipment safe, so it’s important to know what weather is inbound. Seas like these can make maneuvering a big ship like this very difficult, so we will be keeping a close eye on things.”