The HMS Prince of Wales is the second of the Royal Navy's Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. We got a tour of the ship's key features
In the Rosyth dockyard in Scotland, final works are being carried out on HMS Prince of Wales, the Royal Navy’s second supercarrier, following the commissioning of HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2017.
The new ship shares the design of its sister, but with a few tweaks to the process from lessons learned the first time around. “We’re not testing the design this time; we’re testing that we’ve built it completely accurately to the design,” says Vice Admiral Simon Lister, who is managing director of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, a partnership between industry and the Ministry of Defence that is responsible for the construction of the two ships.
At 280 metres long and with a displacement of 65,000 tonnes, the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers are the largest warships ever constructed for the Navy. Building such a large ship, explains Lister, requires distributing construction around the country to manage the throughput of steel. The carriers were built in parts before being assembled at Rosyth using the most powerful crane in Britain, which is capable of lifting 1,000 tonnes and is appropriately named Goliath.
The ship is designed specifically for the Lockheed Martin F-35B fighter jet. The F-35B is a short-take-off and vertical-landing aircraft – a STOVL in military parlance, describing the way it can get airborne and touch down. This informs everything from the ship’s “ski jump” runway, which launches the aircraft so that its wings are at the ideal angle for take-off, to the special paint on the flight deck – an aluminium coating that can withstand the intense heat generated by the plane’s vertical landing.
Despite the ship’s size, it requires a relatively small crew – around 700 people in total – thanks in part to automated systems. One example is the highly mechanised weapons handling system, a series of tracks, moles, lifts and cranes that transport munitions from the deep magazines to the preparation area and flight deck. Stewart Sykes, flight deck and aviation programme manager for the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, compares the system to moving goods in an Amazon warehouse. “Essentially that’s what highly mech is – just with the added complexity of installing it on a naval platform,” he says.
Sykes says that a Nimitz-class carrier – the US Navy’s aircraft carrier, which at 333 metres long is bigger than the British ship – would use around 300 personnel to manage munitions. “We believe that with this system and with the technology we’ve installed here, we can conduct the same operation with around 30 people,” he says. As well as keeping operation costs down, this means that fewer people need to handle dangerous equipment.
The HMS Prince of Wales will undergo power and propulsion trials in August, with staff scheduled to move on board in September. It should be ready for sea trials by September and will be commissioned in 2020. Captain Steve Moorhouse, the first seagoing commanding officer of the HMS Prince of Wales, will then face the daunting task of navigating the ship out of the dock – through a gap that allows for less than half a metre leeway on either side.
The cost of the Prince of Wales – the seventh Royal Navy ship to bear the name – has proved controversial. Originally forecast at £5.8bn, the total build cost of the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers has risen to £6.2bn. A plan for the Prince of Wales to have catapult-assisted take-off was abandoned as too expensive.
The “ski jump” ramp helps turn forwards momentum into vertical momentum to get aircraft like the F-35B off to a flying start. Because the fighter lands vertically, old-style aircraft carrier runways – angled diagonally, to give jets landing at high speed more space to abort – are no longer necessary.
Under cover of a protective tent a special thermal coating – to resist the intense heat generated by the Lockheed Martin F-35B – is applied over the flight deck, which is the size of three football pitches. The metal crosses recessed into the floor at regular intervals tether the aircraft so they don’t roll as the ship negotiates heavy seas.
Levers of Power
Below deck is the Prince of Wales’ ship control centre. The levers on the left of the black console are the propulsion demand regulators. These determine the demand placed on the ship’s prime movers, which convert energy into movement. The demand required is proportional to the speed of the ship.