The Lightning had remained on board after the end of the Westlant 19 deployment because of a technical issue.
As you may already know, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy tested their F-35Bs aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier during the Westlant 19 Carrier Strike Group deployment. On Dec. 4, 2019 the aircraft carrier returned to her homebase in Portsmouth and docked alongside her sister ship, the HMS Prince Of Wales.
The Merlin helicopters and the F-35s returned to their respective homebases before the ship entered Portsmouth Harbour, however an F-35, ZM148 (BK-14), remained on board, because of an unspecified technical fault. After the required maintenance the Lightning obviously needed to get back to RAF Marham, so the jet was launched from the HMS Queen Elizabeth on Dec. 16 while the ship was moored in the harbour.
For the rare occasion, crowds gathered on the shoreline and the live streaming of the takeoff on the official social medias of the Royal Navy reached nearly one million viewers.
The roar of the most advanced aircraft ✈️in Britain’s arsenal reverberated around @HMNBPortsmouth Harbour as an F-35 launched from HMS Queen Elizabeth🚢, the first launch of a jet alongside in Portsmouth in over a decade.
— Royal Navy (@RoyalNavy) December 17, 2019
The first launch of a British F-35B from UK waters has taken place✈️.
— Forces News (@ForcesNews) December 16, 2019
“Launching the jet today was really successful,” said Commander Edward Phillips, HMS Queen Elizabeth’s Commander Air. “It was the first launch of an F-35 from the Queen Elizabeth class in UK waters – and the first launch of a jet from alongside in Portsmouth in well over a decade. A great effort from the ship, the Naval Base and the Lightning Force. We look forward to welcoming our jets and helicopters back in the New Year.”
Brilliant effort from our collective teams to enable this to happen today – it’s important to get this jet back to home base @RAF_Marham to enable preparation for participation in Ex RED FLAG in early 2020. Hopefully the weather remains kind. @RoyalAirForce @RoyalNavy https://t.co/9eXnyFfHEQ
— Air Vice-Marshal Harv Smyth (@AOC_1_Group) December 16, 2019
As highlighted by Commander Phillips, this was the first launch of a Lightning in UK waters and the first flight over the carriers’ base, even if the jets were already at RAF Marham for over a year. After a demanding 2019 made of both training and testing, the Lightning Force will face and equally demanding 2020 in preparation for the first operational deployment in 2021 with the United States Marine Corps.
One of the main milestones will be the participation of the British F-35s to the Red Flag exercise in early 2020, as stated in a Twitter post by Air Vice-Marshal Harv Smyth, Air Officer Commanding No 1 Group of the Royal Air Force, which coordinates all of the RAF’s frontline, fast-jet force elements and the Intelligence Surveillance, Targeting and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) work.