Royal Navy 'Top Gun' pilots train to fly US fighters

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News

media captionLt Daniel Latham takes to the air in an F-18 Hornet

The F18 fighter jets gleam dazzling silver in the California sunshine at Naval Air Station Lemoore, where the control tower handles up to 300 operations a day.

British Royal Navy pilot Lt Dan Latham is walking out to his aircraft with his American colleague for a training mission that will see them fly through the cloudless skies for hundreds of miles over the desert on a practice bombing raid.

Dan, from Ormskirk in Lancashire, is one of the lucky few chosen to fly with his American naval counterparts in the US for four years.

The Royal Navy want to ensure the maritime flying skills of their pilots are maintained, until the new British aircraft carriers and the stealth fighter jets due to fly from them are ready.

The UK government has decided to revert to plans to order a series of F-35B "jump jets", to operate from the new aircraft carrier currently being constructed.

HMS Queen Elizabeth could ready for sea trials in 2017, with the F-35s flying from them in 2018.

'Big egos'

Although he feels at home after 18 months in the US, 28-year-old Lt Latham admits there have been some cultural adjustments.

"The first thing that really hit me was that they do a lot of training down in the southern US, where it is very hot. It is a very different environment to flying from the north of Scotland," he says, with some understatement.

Sending British pilots to train in the US had already begun, even before the government scrapped the Royal Navy's Harrier force and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal in the 2010 strategic defence review.

Nine British pilots are currently in the US - the majority flying F18s - with another four due to join them.

"Flying the jet is very enjoyable, and the first time the sheer power pretty much takes your breath away," he says.

"It's a state-of-the-art jet, optimised around operating at sea, so you will spend plenty of time away, practising your carrier landings onto a ship that's moving at 30 knots away from you, on pitching seas and rolling decks. Night landings are where you really earn your money."

The British pilots also have to acclimatise to the banter of the "ready room", where they and their US colleagues prepare for their missions.

Lt Latham's boss at the US Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-122, Cdr George Wykoff appreciates having the British pilots here.

"We're cut from pretty much the same cloth - we all have really big egos," he jokes.

"The combined camaraderie has really added to the atmosphere in the ready room."

image captionIn a U-turn estimated to cost the UK government £100m, the Ministry of Defence will now order F35-B jump jets

Another British pilot, Lt Steve Collins, is now flying for a frontline US Navy fighter squadron, VFA 14. He is just 26, but has already been operating from an American aircraft carrier at sea, flying strike missions for the US Navy.

"It has certainly been a challenge at times, but also very enjoyable," he tells me.

"While I was on the aircraft carrier, we carried out missions supporting troops in Afghanistan and over Iraq as well. We have to meet the same standards as the US pilots in every regard."

He says the American and British pilots have a healthy respect for one another. "There's banter, and you've got to have a thick skin... and you've got to be able to... give some back. "

Top Gun

His boss, Cdr Kevin McLaughlin, who commands VFA-14, says that the UK pilot has fitted in brilliantly while acting as a US aviator.

It is all rather reminiscent of the film Top Gun, with each naval aviator assigned a unique call-sign.

Lt Collins is a little reluctant to explain his: "Lothar". But Cdr McLaughlin, is happy to do so.

"It is not all "Goose" and "Maverick". A call-sign can be tied to a name, or tied to an act," he explains.

"Lothar is actually an acronym, which stands for Loser of the American Revolution".

Joking aside, the training is intensive, and has a serious purpose.

Cdr Al Cummings, staff aviation officer on the Naval Staff at the British Embassy in Washington, says it is about making sure that the skills needed to operate the UK's new carriers safely are not lost.

"In order to develop a fixed-wing carrier strike capability which will allow us to operate the JSF at sea safely, we need to look to our allies who already have that capability, the French and the Americans.

"The experience our pilots will gain over the next few years will help the UK achieve its SDSR aims".

That will require in-depth knowledge and expertise, not just for the pilots but for all those on board who orchestrate the split-second technical demands of carrier landings and take-offs, where every movement must be precise and structured to avoid disaster.

Not all the young pilots currently training in the US will go on to fly the new stealth aircraft, but many by then will be expected to be in command positions.

Both Lt Latham and Lt Collins hope they will be among those flying the new stealth plane when it finally arrives, ensuring that the skills needed to fly from the British carriers are not lost in the intervening years.

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