Welcome to the future... Hidden away beneath the hangars, offices and production lines at BAE Systems’ base in Warton lies the simulation centre – providing the latest training for top pilots.
The centre has a specific purpose – to train pilots in how to fly the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, which has yet to come into full operation, on to a moving aircraft carrier which, again, has yet to be built.
Warton is the only place in the world where pilots can simulate F-35 carrier operations on the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft carriers before their introduction near 2018.
The chief test pilot Pete Wilson, who helps to train hundreds of fighter pilots in how to fly the plane, has already racked up more than 500 hours of simulation training.
He hailed the project as the forefront of aircraft technology, adding: “The number of different aircraft companies and countries involved in this is phenomenal.
“At the moment, we are the envy of the world – even pilots from the United States come here and are blown away.
“This sort of project has never been done before – to have the Lightning II aircraft, which it will be known as in the UK, and the Queen Elizabeth Carriers being built in partnership will provide the UK with a unique defence capability.”
The UK is expected to order around 100 jets and it hoped they will become fully operational in five years, alongside the first of the aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The UK has 15 per cent of the work on the JSF programme and BAE Systems is responsible for building the tailplanes for all the jets, currently taking place at BAE Samlesbury in a new £150m factory.
The Queen Elizabeth class carriers will be completed at Rosyth, in Fife, Scotland.
Mr Wilson added: “At the end of the day, you’re talking about multi-million pound aircraft and aircraft carriers. We can’t afford to make mistakes and the testing allows us to iron out any problems before full production.
“This facility is the envy of the world and allows us to continue to produce top pilots.”
‘You, young man, are in the wrong job’
After being shown around the test centre, I was asked by Pete Wilson to test-drive the JSF – an invitation that I’m certain was the envy of several colleagues.
Under the guidance of Pete, or his flight code name, Wizzer, I was taught how to land the fighter jet, taking into account my speed, wind speed, flight angles, distance and the movement of the ship.
Although hard to believe, landing the plane from two miles away from the aircraft carrier is five steps, but requires good timing.
After several demonstrations, I was give three chances to land the plane.
Following two successes with Pete’s advice, he left me on my own and I’m glad to say I touched down safely – even having a DVD as proof.
For one day I lived a dream as a jet pilot and was warmed by Pete’s parting words: “I’m very impressed, most people struggle first time around. You, young man, are in the wrong job.”