HALF way up one of the many gantries around No.1 Dry Dock in Rosyth – just about the time you’re getting a bit out of breath thanks to all those steps – there’s a large sign: Jets will fly from this ship in 2018.
l The Goliath crane picks up the final piece of the ramp ready to lift it into place and (below) hydraulic jacks move one of Queen Elizabeth’s rudders into position
Pictures: Aircraft Carrier Alliance
It seems like a long way away (2018, not the hike to the top of the Saturn V-esque gantry...), writes Richard Hargreaves. But every quarter, every month, pretty much every week of the life of HMS Queen Elizabeth between now and then is planned with targets to hit.
From the RN point of view, much of our interest in the future flagship has been about what she’ll bring – huge flight deck, stealthy strike fighters, hi-tech kit, biggest warship ever built in Blighty, one giant slab of sovereign UK territory capable of going pretty much anywhere on the Seven Seas to influence world events. What we’ve not really touched upon is the sheer complexity of putting her together. Fifty-two segments built in six yards around the land – the bow in Devon, the islands in Portsmouth, hull sections on the Clyde, Solent and Tyneside. All built with millimetric precision, shipped to Rosyth for assembly. There are sub-contractors from Aberdeen to the south Devonshire coast, South Wales to East Anglia. It’s a national effort for a national asset.
With the new Forth road crossing – literally
just a few hundred yards downstream from Rosyth – construction of the two carriers is the largest and most complex engineering project in the land.
Just as the doommongers were out in force ahead of the Olympics, much of the media attention has been on costs, delays, problems. But you know what? The Olympics turned out quite nicely... And – even to the least jingoistic-minded
person – one sight of HMS Queen Elizabeth and it does rather make you proud to be British. Now just imagine her squeezing between
Round Tower and Fort Blockhouse, a huge battle ensign billowing in the stiff Solent breeze...
She’s more building site than warship. There’s constant grinding,
Right now, that does take some imagining. banging,
ratcheting. Sparks from welders
cascade in stairwells, while acetylene torches cut through steel. Forests of scaffolding support both the bow
and stern – there can hardly be any planks or piping left in Scotland for any other building projects.
The flight and hangar decks are littered with portable cabins and containers. Wooden crates everywhere. There are cherry pickers. Fork-lift trucks. Even a low-loader crane. Reversing vehicles beep constantly. Cables, pipes and leads snake across the decks. Vending machines dispense not Mars bars or plastic cups of coffee but drill bits, marker pens and screwdrivers. And then there’s the army of Bob the
Builders in their overalls and helmets buzzing around. Two thousand of them on an average day. Another 1,000 supporting them alongside. To the uninitiated, it tooks very busy... and somewhat chaotic. “You’ll look at something and say: this will
never be ready one time,” says PO ‘Hammy’ Hamilton, who previously joined HMS Daring while she was being built. “But then suddenly, they’ll throw people at
it. Next thing you know it’s ready. They are working around the clock. “Every time you come on board there’s something completed, some new item which has appeared.” New in November 2013, the ski ramp. Complete. The very last piece of the hull jigsaw – Block No.52 – to slot (actually
8 : DECEMBER 2013
lowered) into place, courtesy of the enormous Goliath crane which dominates the north shore of the Forth.
As pieces of QE go the ramp is a relative
tiddler; the final segment a ‘mere’ 130 tonnes. The finished ramp stands more than six metres (20ft) high, although at 300 tonnes the completed structure weighs less than half of one per cent of the total displacement of Queen Elizabeth: 65,000 tonnes. Its installation signals the end of an
important chapter in the construction of the nation’s flagships. Only the aircraft lifts and the radar remain to be lifted into place by Goliath.
“This event means a pivotal chapter in
the delivery of HMS Queen Elizabeth has been completed. The ship here in the dock is a truly magnificent sight,” says Ian Booth, programme director of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, the coalition of MOD, Royal Navy and industry which is building Queen Elizabeth and her sister Prince of Wales. “Everyone involved in the programme to
deliver HMS Queen Elizabeth should feel tremendously proud of what we have all achieved to get to this point.” ‘This point’ is four and a half years since
the first steel was cut. Other dates for your diaries: launch in July 2014 – when the dock will be flooded up for the first time. The crew move aboard in May 2016. Sea trials begin in October of that year. A first appearance in Portsmouth around the turn of 2016/17. Lightning II trials in 2018. An operational flagship in 2020. There’s been a ship’s company – based in
Lowden Building, one dry dock and about five minutes’ walk away from the carrier herself – for more than a year. Currently 50 strong, their numbers will quadruple by the end of 2014. “People ask: what are we doing here?
Operations are seven years away,” says Cdr Steve Lynn, Queen Elizabeth’s head of weapon engineering. “But we need to learn about the ship, we need to know what she can do. Yes a lot of the technology is the same as on a Type 45, but the scale of this is just immense.” QE’s first complement have the opportunity
to both ‘write the manual’ – they’re working hand-in-hand with the shipwrights and technicians on getting the carrier’s systems to talk to each other and operate – and set the feel of the ship (which will, of course, be rather easier when they move aboard in two- and-a-half years’ time). “It’s a complete privilege to be involved,”
says Cdr Lynn. “I get excited about what’s happening next week, let alone next year. “My guys love it. They get to be involved, they get their hands on things which they’d not normally do, and they’ve got the chance to influence the ship and how she operates.” Even a cursory tour – with many sections blocked off due to the construction work – reveals one immediate problem: it’s going to be tough finding your way around. One solution might be QR codes which could be read by an electronic device to help you get your bearings. Sound a bit OTT? Maybe. But Queen Elizabeth is the RN super-sized. The flight deck on Illustrious is one third of the width. Stand on QE’s bridge roof and you’re level with the top of the gym at Caledonia, a mile or so away, while the decommissioned R-boat in the adjacent dry dock looks like a Dinky toy. The junior rates dining hall will seat 250
sailors at one go. There are more than 3,000 compartments, 1,600 bunks, 470 cabins (each one with a display screen for information, daily orders, or you can plug in your games system for fun). Like Bulwark, Albion and the Bays, there are wide assault routes for fully-kitted-out troops to move easily from their quarters –
which can easily accommodate 250 men – to waiting helicopters. As the nation’s flagship, there’s going to be a lot of interest shown in QE, so there’s a media centre. And as she’s likely to go into battle at some stage during her 50-year lifespan, a chapel for moments of reflection and spirituality. It’s not the only quiet room aboard the
carriers. ‘Acoustic shelters’ – the F35 is very noisy – are provided so chockheads and bombheads can chill out. And there’s a huge mission complex suite for aircrew to plan their sorties, get their kit, survival equipment and the like.
The hangar stretches for 168 metres – 551ft, or 50ft longer than a Type 45 destroyer, nearly 120ft longer than a Type 23. “We reckon it would take Usain Bolt about 18 seconds to run it,” Cdr Lynn points out. (He’s due in Scotland for the Commonwealth Games next summer. Stock up on chicken nuggets on board and maybe he might be tempted to run it...) The combat systems on board are served by 197 miles of cable – which would stretch from London to Liverpool – while a further 1,300 miles of electrical cabling (enough to link London with the northern Norwegian city of Tromsø) serve the more general needs of the ship’s company. Data – emails, images, orders,
live feeds from aircraft and drones – are crucial both to the battles of tomorrow and maintaining morale aboard. Initially, Queen Elizabeth will have about 8mb – basic broadband at home is about 200kb per second, while American carriers can cope with about 4.5mb of data. In the long term, there’s the potential to cope with 80mb (which is about the equivalent of streaming two Blu-Ray films simultaneously...). When they’re powered up, the carrier’s gas turbines and diesel generators will produce enough ‘juice’ to run a town the size of Swindon – just under 190,000 souls (Daring can only power Bedford, pop.80,000). This super-sizing does pose problems. Each one of the 680 or so crew will eventually be responsible for 96 tonnes of the carrier. That’s four times more than on a Type 23. Twice as much as on a Type 45. “It would take two and a half days just to do the rounds of the air treatment plants,” says Cdr Lynn – there are 27 miles of ventilation ducting running around Queen Elizabeth to keep the computer systems (and ship’s company) cool. “We’ll have to do things differently and
that means a change in mentality. There are a lot of things which the Navy has done for decades which are ripe for review.” There will be a lot of automation –
automated fire-fighting systems, CCTV cameras
monitoring areas. The head of
marine engineering will be able to sit in the ops room and read a sensor on a specific gas turbine, should they so wish. And you’ll be able to ‘dial a bomb’ when
arming the aircraft. Armourers will tell the system which weapon they want for the latest Lightning II mission and it will deliver it via lifts and rails to the prepping area below the flight deck. “The software which drives it is a bit like the Amazon warehouse,” says Cdr Lynn. “None of that man-handling of weapons. There’s nothing like it that we know of, and it’ll save about 70 crew.” It’s still quite hard to envisage bombs and missile pods in here – in fact it’s still quite hard to imagine much of QE as a living, breathing warship. Most of the decks are covered in matting, the instruments on the bridge are hidden by wooden crates, much of what has been installed is in protective wrapping, various compartments and sections are sealed off with crime-scene-esque tape. It’ll be fun taking it all off. Like Christmas has come early...
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