It was a maiden voyage to let the world know Britain still has global capability.
Sailors lined the four acre flight deck as the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier docked in Portsmouth – now empty of F-35s that have already flown home.
Waiting families cheered at the first sight of their loved ones after over seven months at sea – but returning minus one jet made for a tougher homecoming.
The Ministry of Defence still won’t be drawn on the cause of last month’s F-35 crash in the Mediterranean.
Although, we’ve now learned flying was suspended on board after the incident, according to the senior officer in charge of British overseas operations.
Lt Gen Charles Stickland, Commander of Joint operations, said: “We just have to accept that doing carrier strike operations with a 5th generation aircraft is grown-up business.
“It’s highly complex. It’s well thought through but unfortunately, these sorts of things happen.
“The thing to take away from it was that the organisation was sufficiently mature to understand what had happened as best we could and we’re still investigating but 36 hours later we were flying again.”
Leaked footage shared on social media showed the F-35 toppling into the sea on take-off.
It’s now the subject of an investigation amid speculation that a rain cover, or similar, had been left on and got sucked into the aircraft’s engine.
A sailor has since been arrested for leaking the video – and the highly classified wreckage has been recovered from more than a mile underwater before it could fall into hostile hands.
We’ve now also learned the pilot who ejected safely received medical attention.
Able Seaman Lauren-Lee Wilson was part of the medical team on board.
“We got him off safely to get some more medical care but he was great.
“After an ejection like that we just need to make sure there are no prolonged symptoms that come on but he was great. We had him overnight,” he said.
The deployment had several challenges including hostile activity from Russia and a coronavirus outbreak in the summer.
But there was a determination to focus on the positives.
The fleet returns COVID free and the successful ejection of the pilot without the aircraft even getting airborne has been commended for its cutting-edge technology.
“The general feeling was ‘we have an aircraft ditched, rapid response from the command, rapid response from the flight deck team, rapid response from everybody,'” Logistician Able Rating William Augustine said.
“And that is why we drill and that is why we train so that when these things happen we’ll be able to recover ourselves and crack on.
“We did it well, to be honest. The important factor for us is that there was no loss of life”
Nearly 4000 sailors, marines, and aviators are now home in time for Christmas following the carrier’s maiden deployment.
The ship will redeploy next summer but remains in a state of high readiness.
When asked if it could be involved in the activity on Europe’s eastern border, Lt Gen Stickland said: “What we do on an annual basis is: ‘Where do we want to put the carrier capability?
“‘Where does NATO need it? Where can we have that global impact?’
“And so there will be discussions with ministers into the spring of – ‘here are your options.'”
The new carrier means Britain can now have an airfield anywhere in the world – a way of projecting power and influence where we may need it.
For now, that capability remains clouded with questions over how it lost a £100 million jet.