Sea Trials Successfully Completed: Italian Navy Aircraft Carrier Achieves F-35B Airworthiness Certification

An F-35B launches in "Beast Mode" from ITS Cavour. (All images: Italian Navy)

The Italian aircraft carrier ITS Cavour has completed the “Sea Trials” with the two specially instrumented U.S. F-35B Lighting II aircraft of VX-23.

Italy’s aircraft carrier ITS Cavour, the flagship of the Marina Militare (Italian Navy), has successfully completed the “sea trials” for the operational use of the F-35B, the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the 5th generation combat aircraft the service will use to replace the AV-8B+ Harrier II.

The “Ready for Operation” compatibility testing began with the departure from Norfolk on Feb. 28, 2021, and the deployment aboard the carrier of the two specially-instrumented U.S. F-35Bs belonging to VX-23 (Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23) from Naval Air Station Patuxent River (NAS Pax River), Maryland, on Mar. 1, 2021.

The “sea trials” lasted four weeks and ended on Mar. 26, 2021, with the return of the carrier to Norfolk.

The testing campaign was crucial to the Italian Navy as it represents one of the milestones towards the acquisition of the strategic capability of the new aircraft. It will be followed by the “Initial Operational Capability” the naval service plans to achieve in 2024, and ultimately the “Final Operational Capability” that will coincide with the delivery of the last F-35B to the Italian Navy under the JSF program. The Italian Government should procure 90 F-35s, 60 of those are F-35As and the remaining 30 ones are F-35Bs. Out of those 30 F-35Bs, 15 will go to the Navy and 15 to the Air Force. The Navy’s F-35Bs should also operate from the new LHD Trieste.

A VX-23 F-35B prepares to land aboard Italian Navy Cavour aircraft carrier. 

“We have completed all planned tests and are currently able to issue an Interim Flight Clearance (IFC), which will allow Cavour and its crew, together with US Marine Corps F35Bs to continue training. When we return to ‘Pax River’ we will carefully analyse the data collected and then we will be able to issue the final certification” – said Ron Hess, who works as the Basing and Ship Suitability (BASS) Team Leader for the F-35 Patuxent River Integrated Test Force (ITF), in an official Italian Navy release.

As part of the sea trials, the two F-35Bs of VX-23 carried out more than 50 flight missions, in all weather and sea state conditions, a night session, around 120 vertical landings, and as many short take-offs with the aid of the ski jump, and finally a vertical take-off test. Based on the images released during the campaign, some tests were also conducted with external loads, a configuration often referred to as “Beast Mode”.

Italian Navy Cavour Sea Trials
A U.S. F-35B during the sea trials aboard ITS Cavour. 

“It is extraordinary how the crew of ITS Cavour and the Integrated Team have reached, so quickly, a very high level of synergy and integration with great professionalism and a strong common will to achieve the ambitious goal,” said the commander of Cavour, Captain Giancarlo Ciappina.

Overall, about 800 people took part in the certification: the 580 crew members who departed Taranto at the end of January were joined in Norfolk by the ITF team, as well as the nucleus of Italian Navy personnel who operate the aircraft and are currently carrying out training at the US Marine base in Beaufort.

“I am very grateful to all members of the ITF team and every single sailor on my crew for the great job they did to achieve this excellent result” continued Captain Ciappina, “In this sense, I am very proud of the success of the “Ready for Operations” Campaign of ITS Cavour. Thanks to this, the Italian Navy, and with it our entire National Defence, will soon be projected into a new perspective of cooperation with our allies, thanks to fifth-generation aircraft deployable from aircraft carriers, and the importance they represent in any international scenario, specifically for maritime or inter-force operations”.

During the sea trials, ITS Cavour also had the opportunity to integrate with the U.S. Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) on Mar. 20, 2021. USS Ford was conducting integrated carrier strike group operations during independent steaming event 17 as part of her post-delivery test and trials phase of operations. The joint ops marked the first time a Ford-class and Italian carrier have operated together underway.

The aircraft carrier ITS Cavour is currently in the port of Norfolk where it will disembark the ITF personnel while completing the necessary preparation to undertake the last phases of the Ready for Operations campaign before returning to Italy.

The U.S. deployment and the sea trials came during an important time for the Italian Navy. As a matter of fact, 2021 marks the 160th anniversary of the Marina Militare, the 10th anniversary of the ITS Cavour becoming the fleet’s flagship and the 30th anniversary of the Gruppo Aerei Imbarcati “Wolves” and their operations with the AV-8B+ Harrier.

An interesting image of an Italian Navy NH-90 helicopter flying close to ITS Cavour. 
About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.