Royal Navy warship HMS Queen Elizabeth has set sail for her first ever F-35 stealth fighter trials in UK waters.
The 65,000-tonne, 920 ft long, aircraft carrier departed her home base of Portsmouth today to much fanfare.
Crowds gathered to say farewell to the massive vessel as she sailed out into the Solent.
HMS Queen Elizabeth also said goodbye to her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales, with the south coast city now home to two aircraft carriers.
The £3 billion warship returned from the US at the end of last year where it had carried out tests of the F35B Lightning stealth fighter.
And now the awesome carrier has sailed from her base to carry out further tests of the state-of-the-art jet in UK territorial waters.
Royal Navy officials boasted the this year is going be “massive” for the vessel as she expected to begin service by the end of 2020.
Captain Angus Essenhigh, who took command of the vessel earlier this month, said: “It is a real honour for me to be taking HMS Queen Elizabeth to sea for the first time as her new commanding officer.
“This period at sea will build on the successes of the Westlant 19 deployment [to the US], providing a fantastic opportunity for the ship to further its generation towards carrier strike, and will train and qualify UK F-35B pilots in UK waters for the very first time.
F-35s from the joint 207 Squadron – made up from the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy – will conduct the trials after taking off from their base at RAF Marham.
Six pilots will carry out their aircraft carrier qualifications, taking off and landing on Big Liz’s deck – which is the size of three football pitches.
Lieutenant Commander Richard Turrell, the ship’s flight deck officer, said: “My team are excited to get to sea and continue the development of our ship to air wing partnership throughout 2020 and beyond to deploying with full carrier strike capability in 2021.”
He said it will be a “fantastic opportunity” for the pilots and sailors to work together on the carrier.
F-35s are state-of-the-art warplanes, combining stealth technology with supersonic speed.
Flying at altitudes of 50,000ft and at speeds of more than 1200mph, the UK currently has 18 of the jets – with over 100 more expected to be delivered in the coming years.
In a message shared by the Big Liz’s account on Twitter: "2020 is a massive year for us. Only three testing points remain to achieve Initial Operational Capability.
"We plan to sail... to tick the third last box. UK territorial waters, Lightning is forecast!"
Big Liz is the largest vessel ever built by the Royal Navy and is capable to carrying 60 aircraft and housing 250 Royal Marines
Both her and her sister will be the core of Britain’s new carrier strike group, supported by destroyers, submarines frigates.
The ship will be crewed by 1,600 men and will also have the squadron of Crowsnest helicopters on board to support the marines.
HMS Queen Elizabeth will serve as a floating military base, ready for war and to help with disaster relief and humanitarian aid missions.
Big Liz and her sister will become the centrepiece of Britain’s military when she comes into service.
Reportedly the aircraft carrier’s first operation mission will be to sail in the the the Pacific, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Announcing the deployment, then defence secretary Gavin Williamson said it was a display of “hard power” and make “global Britain a reality”.
HMS Prince of Wales set sail for the first time last year, marking the first time that UK’s biggest and most powerful warships were at sea together for the first time.
Speaking as she left the shipyard in Rosyth, ear Admiral Martin Connell, assistant chief of naval staff aviation and carrier strike, said: "I was the commanding officer of HMS Illustrious - our former aircraft carrier - and if someone had told me at the beginning of this decade we would have two brand new aircraft carriers at sea by the end of the decade, I wouldn't have believed them.
And Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Jerry Kyd said: “It is a hugely significant event for them but also for the Royal Navy and wider UK Defence.
“This means that, today, the Royal Navy has two aircraft carriers at sea – a powerful symbol of our government’s commitment to a strong defence and a global navy."