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More than 2,000 friends and family gave a huge welcome to Britain’s biggest warship as HMS Prince of Wales returned to Portsmouth. The aircraft carrier enjoyed the largest homecoming the Hampshire Naval Base has seen in several years as she completed a three-month deployment to the United States.

The ship left Portsmouth at the beginning of September for an autumn dedicated to expanding the boundaries of naval aviation for the UK’s two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

Successful trials have been carried out with small pilotless drones, which could take the place of helicopters in delivering supplies to a task group, and much larger crewless aircraft, which could conduct long-range surveillance or strike missions in the future.

Extensive trials have been conducted with the US Marine Corps and F-35 Lightning jets which mean in future the stealth fighters can be launched on more sorties, more quickly, with a heavier payload – weapons or fuel – in worse weather conditions if required.

The carrier’s flight deck – which has never been busier – has also frequently hosted US Marine Corps Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and a series of gunships and general purpose helicopters to maximise the ability of the two allies’ military forces to operate seamlessly together.

“It’s great to be back after a hugely-successful deployment,” said Captain Richard Hewitt, the carrier’s Commanding Officer. “During the past 3½ months we have pushed the boundaries of naval aviation, worked hand in hand with our US partners and ensured the continued advancement of Queen Elizabeth class aviation.

“I am immensely proud of all onboard who have been nothing short of brilliant. My particular thanks go to all those who have supported us from home”

The ship has also welcomed a string of VIP guests, from senior British and US naval officers, to the Japanese Navy which is about to operate F-35s at sea, while the ship’s company took part in formal ceremonies include a joint Remembrance Service to mark Armistice Day.

“It’s been an excellent deployment for my team, with a huge variety of aircraft. We’ve had real excitement on the deck, doing things that have never been done before with an F-35,” said Commander Martin Russell in charge of all aerial operations on board as Commander Air.

“Having three MV-22 Ospreys from the US Presidential Squadron was a real highlight, as well as being able to support the US Marine Corps by opening the deck for all their aircraft.”

He continued: “Conducting the first launches and landings of two new fixed wing un-crewed systems was particularly relevant for my younger personnel, who got a chance to operate air systems that will be the future of this ship during her 50-year lifespan.

“It was sad to say goodbye to the Merlin and Wildcat helicopters of 820 and 815 Squadrons when they disembarked yesterday, but the team have earned a well-deserved rest over the Christmas holidays.”

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