The U.K. is using simulation to form a vision of how the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be used on the country's two new planned aircraft carriers.

With both the aircraft and the carriers still under construction and more than half a decade before the two actually meet for real, BAE Systems has been working to understand how the two systems will come together, not only learning lessons while preparing for the aircraft's scheduled entry into service at the end of the decade, but also influencing the methods used by other F-35B customers including the U.S. Marine Corps.

Test pilots originally used the simulator, located at BAE Systems' Warton facility in Lancashire in early 2012 to study how the conventional carrier landing, or F-35C, version of the aircraft could operate from the Queen Elizabeth II-class carrier. However, the coalition government's U-turn to go back to the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing F-35B in May 2012 resulted in major upheaval in the development process.

“It took about two or three months to turn it around,” said Pete “Whizzer” Wilson, BAE's F-35 test pilot, the third from the U.K. to have flown the aircraft. “We have made some significant progress with both aircraft and ship integration.

“The U.K. is very fortunate. In the U.S., they face the challenge of integrating the new aircraft onto old ships and existing systems, here we are able to start afresh and take a new look at how we carry out carrier operations.”

Simulator experiments have proven the validity of the deck parking layout for the aircraft. Because the U.K. ship in the simulator does not have an angled deck, landings are conducted down the length, but F-35s that are not flying can be parked on both sides of the deck. Initial experiments showed that at certain angles of parking on the port side, pilots on approach would adjust and push the aircraft to the right and closer to the ship's islands. However, by parking aircraft at a more acute angle to the stern of the ship, pilots were more comfortable touching down on the centerline.

The ships will also make use of a Bedford Array, which is a lighting system that includes a series of flashing units down the centerline of the ship at the landing point that are stabilized for the vessel's heave and pitch. On the pilot's head-up display is a new ship-reference velocity vector. By maneuvering the aircraft and the vector onto the Bedford Array, the pilot can comfortably make a 6-deg. glideslope landing using the Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL) method.

“With a 60-knot SRVL, the bring- back capability is significant,” said Wilson. “With vertical landings, you are not going to be bringing back 2,000-pound bombs but when was the last time the U.K. was using 2,000- pound weapons? More often than not we are seeing 1,000-pound or 500-pound weapons being used.”

Wilson said the SRVL work was also influencing how the Marine Corps may also use their F-35Bs on larger vessels such as the U.S. Navy's big-deck nuclear carriers. Several Navy carrier air wings feature Marine squadrons, and the Marines are examining if it might be possible to use SRVL on the larger vessels without issues with systems such as the arrestor wires.

“The B model offers huge flexibility,” said Wilson. “The U.S. Navy has 10 large-deck carriers capable of delivering first-day strike, with the F-35B operating from LHDs [landing helicopter dockships], you have then got 20 carriers capable of doing that, and that's a very different concept.”

Wilson says the choice of the F-35B for the U.K. is significant mainly because the training burden is substantially reduced, particularly compared with the AV-8B Harrier but also for conventional carrier operations. During the DT-1 deck trials on the USS Wasp in October 2011, one of the test pilots, who had previously flown F/A-18s was cleared to land on the Wasp after conducting 18 vertical landings on ground.

The U.K. is now looking to make its first significant orders for the F-35 with plans for the purchase of 14 aircraft currently winding its way through the Defense Ministry. Those plans will reach the Treasury later this year. The U.K. wants to be able to deliver an initial operating capability from land bases toward the end of 2018 and a full capability, including carrier operations by 2023.

The U.K. has a program for the operation of 138 F-35s, however it has been reported that the number could be reduced to as few as 48, with just 12 flying from a carrier at one time. A final decision on the number to be procured will not be made until the next Strategic Defense and Security Review, which is due to be undertaken in 2015.