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How to build an aircraft carrier

Warship Support Director
Portsmouth Naval Base is a hive of activity, preparing HMS Queen Elizabeth for her voyage to the east coast of America to operate with the F-35 aircraft for the first time. But while Portsmouth is preparing for her departure, a new documentary looking at her history, from concept to commissioning, is due to be shown on April 15.
As Warship Support Director at BAE Systems Maritime Services, part of what I do involves overseeing the work done here at Portsmouth Naval Base to support HMS Queen Elizabeth on behalf of the Royal Navy.
 
You could say I know a little bit about the Royal Navy’s new flagship aircraft carrier. My involvement in the carrier programme spans from 2003 during the completion phase, all the way through to last year when, as the Aircraft Carrier Alliance’s Queen Elizabeth Delivery Director, it was my responsibility to get her ready for her delivery to Portsmouth and hand over to the Royal Navy.
 
HMS Queen Elizabeth entry into Portsmouth Image 3
 
Since the beginning of the carrier programme the vessels really captured the British public’s imagination. They seem to have an affinity with the Royal Navy, the military in general, and anything connected to it. This is the biggest ship we’ve built for the Royal Navy, and it fills a gap in capability that’s been there since the 1970s when we lost the ability to fly fixed wing aircraft from carriers, plus it’s a symbol of British military might and the role we play in the world.
 
Because of that, the programme has really been delivered from the outset squarely in the public eye, with scrutiny from senior politicians, senior Royal Navy officers, and senior members of all three organisations involved in the build – BAE Systems, Thales and Babcock.
 
That’s certainly added an extra dimension to building the largest warships the Royal Navy has ever had. Building any first in class ship is difficult, especially the latter stages when you’re incorporating all the systems and getting it ready for trials, but building something the size of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the volumes we were dealing with on a day to day basis, was something else entirely. We had to install over 3 million meters of cable, test 80,000 pipes, commission nearly 300 systems and handover 3,000 compartments.
 
But throughout the programme there has been a real sense of pride in what we have delivered, not just from the ACA but also the Royal Navy and the ship’s company in particular – they were excited about being the first ship’s company even before they had a ship they were able to sail!  The interest around Exit Rosyth, and then the international coverage of First Entry Portsmouth, plus the thousands of people who came to Portsmouth very early that August morning to welcome her in, really showed us that our pride is shared across the nation and beyond.
 
Image taken onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth
 
Throughout the build process we allowed film maker Chris Terrill and his team exclusive access to the ship – in fact he’s been involved with the carrier for almost as long as I have! I’m very much looking forward to watching his documentary and reliving how HMS Queen Elizabeth came to life – seeing again her blocks arriving, the switching on of her high voltage systems, her generators coming to life for the first time, as well as reliving the more public events.
 
Now, though, we are in a 13-week support period here in Portsmouth, with our engineers and other contractors using their skills and expertise to prepare her for fixed wing trials in America later this year. At the moment we’re enhancing her capability: the time between Queen Elizabeth’s concept and delivery has been so long that technology moved on — when she was originally designed some of the capabilities she needs hadn’t even been conceived. That means that before she leaves we have to install the new technology she needs for the F-35 trials, and also do some routine maintenance to make sure she is in the best conditions for her journey across the Atlantic.
 
Image of HMS Queen Elizabeth taken in March 2018
HMS Queen Elizabeth is part-way through a 13-week support period ahead of F-35 trials in the USA later this year. Work being carried out during the 13 weeks includes routine maintenance, as well as installing new technology.
Britain’s Biggest Warship, the three-part documentary filmed over nine years of HMS Queen Elizabeth’s build and delivery programme, will air over three successive weeks from Sunday, April 15 at 8pm on BBC Two.
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Jon Pearson Warship Support Director 9 April 2018