Watch: What is it like scrambling F-35Bs from HMS Queen Elizabeth?

F-35Bs on board aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth are prepared to be scrambled, when necessary, but what happens in the minutes leading up to that moment?

"You're launching into the slight unknown," Officer Commanding 617 Squadron, Commander Mark Sparrow told Forces News.

The Carrier Strike Group (CSG21) - led by HMS Queen Elizabeth - is in its final month of what is its maiden deployment.

But the formation's first real test of hostility came earlier in the trip as it sailed through eastern Mediterranean waters – an area Russia takes a close interest in.

The two-week journey through the region saw Russian aircraft being intercepted almost every day, with pilots strapped in on the runway, ready to launch.

Forces News has been given an exclusive insight into how the interceptions were carried out and what it was like inside the Operations Room on board HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Watch: On board HMS Queen Elizabeth off Oman.

'A real buzz'

That was how Lieutenant Commander Lloyd Wilson, Principal Warfare Officer, described the Ops Room, the nerve centre of the formation, after the first buzz by the Russians. 

"[There was] a lot of people in here, all closed up, all focused, and essentially it's just doing what we've been training to do, but for real instead of for exercise."

Lieutenant Commander Richard 'Tom' Hanks, head of warfare department, described it as "very direct, not necessarily aggressive... we knew what the intent was".

"It sounds very dramatic and I suppose in many ways it was…you've got aircraft closing at hundreds of miles an hour," said Commodore Steve Moorhouse, Commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group.

There are a series of responses and warnings that can be called upon following such an incident.

"We don't want aircraft flying through the overhead here, unescorted, without us knowing - you wouldn't want that happening through Heathrow," Cdre Moorhouse explained. 

"So you have a whole series of responses and warnings and if those aircraft do not comply, or inform us about what they're up to, then we're obliged to launch aircraft to intercept them."

He added: "It's international airspace, international sea - nobody owns it. We're simply not going to be bullied around."

Watch: Timeline of UK's F-35B fighter fleet as it hits 10,000 flight hours.

The intercept

The Carrier Strike Group's mission is to show its power off to the world, to warn off potential enemies and entice new friends to join. 

It is also a time to see what the new F-35Bs could do.

They're Britain's most advanced aircraft ever, costing around £190m each with stealth and short take-off/vertical landing capability.

Commander Sparrow described scrambling as "launching into the slight unknown".

"We know there's Russian aircraft coming but we don't know how many and what their intentions are.

"We're asking what their intentions are. We never had a response from that. We weren't really expecting a response, but that's what we put out."

A US F35 aircraft landing on HMS QNLZ's flight deck.
A US F-35 aircraft lands on HMS Queen Elizabeth's flight deck.

He added: "Once we end up alongside, there may be some hand signals but friendly hand signals just to say hello and otherwise we maintain a respectful distance. 

"They know that we're there. We know that they're there and we just escort them through over the top of the carrier."

Eighteen of the jets are on the carrier - 10 American, eight British.

Cdr Sparrow says the F-35B does "what we hoped it would do" but that there's "still a long way to go in learning how to operate it to its max performance".

"We definitely have bought the best piece of equipment in the world for what it does."

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