In Depth

The Ski Jump: Continuing the UK’s Legacy of Carrier Strike Capability

October 01, 2018

For more than 30 years, the UK has used the ski jump for carrier operations. The shorter UK carriers feature an upward-sloped ramp at the bow of the ship. Curved at its leading edge, a ski-jump ramp simultaneously launches aircraft upward and forward, enabling takeoffs with more weight and less end-speed than required for an unassisted horizontal launch. 

An F-35B conducts a ski jump off the HMS Queen Elizabeth for the first time, marking a major milestone for the UK’s armed forces.

With the partnership between the Lockheed Martin and the UK's BAE Systems, the design of the F-35B has incorporated the ski jump takeoff capability from the very beginning.

HMS Queen Elizabeth is the first of two Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers equipped with a ski-jump ramp, charged with maintaining security for the UK and overseas, increasing the UK’s ability to project maritime and air power, and responding to crises worldwide.

Performing the Jump

The F-35B automatically positions the control surfaces and nozzles for takeoff, a unique capability compared with previous STOVL (short takeoff and vertical landing) aircraft. Such automation frees up pilot capacity and provides an added safety enhancement. The aircraft treats the take off just like a regular short take off until it recognizes the six-degree per-second pitch rate and six-degree pitch angle about half way up the ramp.

The horizontal tails and nozzle then automatically maneuver downward, and the vane box does not budge. The vane box sits directly under the lift fan and directs the airflow to allow for the proper lift off the surface.

In regards to the ski jump, Andy Edgell, Royal Air Force Squadron Leader, provided some commentary on the ease with which a pilot performs the unique takeoff:

“The performance of the jet has been great. As the pilot, I have to do very little to accomplish a perfect ski jump takeoff,” commented Edgell. “I push the STOVL button to convert to Mode 4, push throttle to mil and use the pedals for minor directional inputs to remain on center line.”

Watch above to see the ski jump in action aboard the ship.

“As the jet travels up the ski jump it automatically makes the necessary adjustments to the nozzle and control surface deflections. With the F-35 automatically adjusting for the optimum takeoff, the pilot is free to adopt more of a supervisory role, monitoring for any off-nominal behavior and ready to immediately take full control, if necessary,” said Edgell.

“Virtue of the superb F-35 STOVL handling qualities, the low pilot workload during launch and recovery from an aircraft carrier enables the pilot to focus more on the operational task at hand and less on the administrative aspects of the flight.”

A Major Milestone for the UK

Recently, two F-35Bs successfully landed aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth for the first time, taking a critical step toward integrating the STOVL F-35 variant aboard the UK ship. Needless to say, ski jumping will be a major part of the carrier's sea trials over the next several weeks. 

"No words can explain how it felt to turn the corner at 500mph and see HMS Queen Elizabeth awaiting the arrival of her first F-35 jets,” said Nathan Gray, Royal Navy Commander, who landed one of the F-35Bs aboard the ship. “I feel incredibly privileged.”

"For a naval aviator it is always a special moment when you spot the carrier in the distance, hidden within a grey expanse of ocean. HMS Queen Elizabeth is a floating city, home to hundreds of fellow sailors and Royal Marines, and it's been a particularly poignant day."

For UK Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson, this milestone marked the resurrection of the UK's carrier strike capabilities. 

“The historic first landing on the deck of the HMS Queen Elizabeth in a monumental moment in our country’s proud military history. This marks a rebirth of our power to strike decisively from the seas anywhere in the world," Williamson said. 

Two F-35Bs at attention aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, as sea trials move ahead at full speed. 

The testing aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth is actively showcasing the ingenuity and teamwork of hundreds of men and women to integrate the F-35B into a ski-jump carrier and enable the aircraft to be a powerful force for the UK for decades to come.

Click here for more images from the deployment.