The guys in the driver’s seat rate the F35.
In my interviews with F-35 pilots, one word repeatedly came up: “survivability.” Surviving the Lockheed Martin F-35’s primary mission—to penetrate sophisticated enemy air defenses and find and disable threats—requires what the fifth-generation jet offers: stealth and a stunning array of passive and active sensors bringing information to the pilot. The F-35 can see trouble coming—ahead, behind, or below the aircraft—far enough in advance to avoid a threat or kill it. Faced with multiple threats, the sensor suite recommends the order in which they should be dispatched.
U.S. forces first took these capabilities into combat last September, when Marine F-35Bs struck the Taliban in Afghanistan (five months after its combat debut with the Israeli air force). More than 360 of the multi-service aircraft—Air Force F-35As, Marine short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing Bs, and carrier-capable Cs—have been delivered to 16 U.S. airbases and to seven other countries. Reaching these milestones has not been easy. The program’s difficulties and its cost—$406 billion for development and acquisition—have been widely reported. But now the F-35 is in the hands of the best judges of its performance, its pilots. I asked eight of them—test pilots who contributed to the jet’s development as well as active-duty pilots—about their experiences. Here, in their own words, are their answers.
I myself have teetered right on the very edge of unalloyed skeptic status when it comes to this bird. There have been serious gripes about the Lightning II from the very start—about expense, performance, the complexity and reliability of its electronics suite, etc. Then again, this sort of thing has been true of every new military aircraft type during its shakedown period, most especially with the fighters. As I said in the aforelinked post, even my beloved P51 was considered by pretty much everybody to be a total dog until its Merlin-engine, bubble-canopy “D” version came along. The issues will either be addressed and the thing will be a worldbeater for the next fifty years, or they won’t…in which case it will turn out to be the most expensive doorstop in history.
One of the things that kind of frosts me with the F35 was how the underappreciated F22 got the military-aviation version of the bum’s rush in a most undignified way to make room for it, despite the Raptor being a highly capable platform at a far less aneurysm-inducing sticker price. The very first pilot quoted in the article puts paid to at least some of my caviling and kvetching:
For four years, all people could talk about was how we’d lost a dogfight against a 40-year-old F-16. Paris was the first time we showed what the airplane could do. The F-35 engine is the most powerful fighter engine in the world, so on takeoff, I pulled straight up. The F-22 Raptor is an airshow favorite because it is super maneuverable. It has thrust vectoring; it controls the engine exhaust with paddles that move. The F-22 can do a downward spiral, and I did the same thing in the F-35—without thrust vectoring. I pull up to vertical, skid the airplane over the top, and spiral down like a helicopter hovers. That pedal turn [executed with rudder inputs] ended the discussion of how an F-35 would perform in a dogfight.
The second reviewer hits on something a good bit more important than that:
If you were to write down all the ways in which you could measure an airplane—payload, fuel, ordnance, handling—and ask 100 pilots to rank which is the most important, I guarantee you that 100 out of 100 pilots would say “situational awareness.” By far. Not a single pilot in the world would say “turn radius.” Not one. Because the more you know, the more accurately you know it, the better able you are to make a decision.
In situational awareness, the F-35 is superior to all platforms, including the Raptor. I’d never been in an airplane that so effectively and seamlessly integrates information to tell me what’s going on around me—and not just from the radio frequency spectrum, but laser, infrared, electro-optical. That’s usually the first thing people notice when they get in the airplane. They know so much more than they ever knew before.
Fair enough, I suppose. Now if we can just find a way to get our fighter jocks some stick time training in actual aircraft instead of simulators.