USMC F-35B pilots speak about their aircraft

Sunday, December 11th, 2016

Four USMC F-35B pilots speak about their aircraft:

Guts; My first “aha” moment was a seemingly simple thing. I was executing a familiarization flight near MCAS Yuma. I was coming back to the airfield and I basically just turned the jet and pointed its nose at Yuma. Immediately the jet is providing me the information of all the traffic that is out there in the airspace. When I talk to approach for the first time they are telling me about the traffic that is out there that I already know about and I see it. I can tell who everybody is that he is talking about and the jet also saw traffic that ATC hadn’t seen yet and I asked about it. And I thought, “Holy Cow!” here I am coming back to the field from a simple familiarity mission and my jet is telling me everything about the operational environment I am about to go into. In this case, something very simple, the traffic pattern coming back there, but I didn’t have to do anything to have that level of SA [Situational Awareness]. I can start making decisions about what altitude I wanted to go to, if I wanted to turn left or right, speed up or slow down. There’s somebody coming up next to me, I want to get in front of them — or whatever. It is a very simple example, but I thought WOW this is amazing that I see everything and can do that.

The other was the first time I vertically recovered the airplane. The flight control law that the airplane has is unbelievable and I always tell the anecdote. Flying AV-8B Harrier IIs, I only had one specific aircraft I felt like I could kind of go easy on the controls and it would sit there and hover. I love the Harrier, love flying that aircraft, but there was work involved to bring it back for a vertical landing. The very first time I hovered an F-35B I thought, I am the problem here, and I am just going to let the jet do what it wants to do. The F-35 was hovering better than I could ever hover a Harrier without doing a thing. That’s back to that workload comment I said earlier. I am performing a vertical landing, and I have the time to look around and see what is taking place on the pad and around me. It is a testament to the jet.

BC; I was conducting a strike mission and Red Air was coming at me. In a 4th Gen fighter you must do a whole lot of interpretation. You see things in azimuth, and you see things in elevation. In the F-35 you just see the God’s eye view of the whole world. It’s very much like you are watching the briefing in real time.

I am coming in to perform the simulated weapons release, and Red Air is coming the other direction. I have enough situational awareness to assess whether Red Air is going to be a factor to me by the time I release the weapon. I can make the decision, I’m going to go to the target, I’m going to release this weapon. Simultaneously I pre-target the threat, and as soon as I release the A2G weapon, I can flip a switch with my thumb and shoot the Red Air. This is difficult to do in a 4th Gen fighter, because there is so much manipulation of systems in the cockpit. All while paying attention to the basic mechanics of flying the airplane and interpreting threat warnings that are often very vague, or only directional. In the F-35 I know where the threats are, what they are and I can thread the needle. I can tell that the adversary is out in front of me and I can make a very, very smart decision about whether to continue or get out of there. All that, and I can very easily switch between mission sets.

Mo; I was leading a four ship of F-35s on a strike against 4th Gen adversaries, F-16s and F/A-18s. We fought our way in, we mapped the target, found the target, dropped JDAMs on the target and turned around and fought our way out. All the targets got hit, nobody got detected, and all the adversaries died. I thought, yes, this works, very, very, very well. Never detected, nobody had any idea we were out there.

A second moment was just this past Thursday. I spent a fair amount of my life as a tail hook guy — [landing F/A-18s on US Navy Supercarriers] on long carrier deployments. The last 18 seconds of a Carrier landing are intense. The last 18 seconds of making a vertical landing on this much smaller USMC Assault Carrieris a lot more relaxed. The F-35C is doing some great stuff. Making a vertical landing [my first this week] on the moving ship, that is much smaller than anything I’ve landed on at sea — with less stress, was awesome.

Sack; It was my first flight at Edwards AFB Jan ’16. I got in the airplane and started it up. I was still on the deck and there were apparently other F-35s airborne — I believe USAF, I was not aware. I was a single ship, just supposed to go out and get familiar flying the aircraft. As the displays came alive there were track files and the SA as to what everyone else was doing in the airspace, and I was still on the ground. I mean, I hadn’t even gotten my take-off clearance yet. I didn’t even know where it was coming from. It was coming from another F-35. The jet had started all the systems for me and the SA was there. That was a very eye opening moment for me.

The second one, took place when I came back from that flight. In a Hornet you would pull into the line and had a very methodical way in which you have to shut off the airplane and the systems otherwise you could damage something. So you have to follow a sequence, it is very methodical about which electronic system you shut off. In the F-35 you come back, you do a couple things then you just shut the engine off, and it does everything else for you. Sounds simple, even silly — but it is a quantum shift.


  1. Cassander says:

    The F-35 program, like all large government IT projects, is a clusterfuck of epic proportions. That said, as an aircraft, it will eventually prove very good.

    Just about every comprehensive examination of aerial combat since WW2 has reached the same conclusion, that about 4 times out of 5, if you get shot down, it’s by an enemy that you didn’t see coming. Situational awareness, not speed or maneuverability or anything else, is the key.

    The F-35 is really the first aircraft in the world that takes this lesson to heart and lets it drive the design process. Almost all of the advanced technology in it is devoted to either minimizing the enemy’s awareness (stealth) or maximizing that of the pilot (sensor fusion, the helmet, the auto-pilot). It will cost way more than it should, and come in way past the original schedule, but it will also be massive step forward.

  2. Sheldon says:

    The Israelis are happy with the plane. Very much so. Does that say a lot or what?

  3. Lu An Li says:

    “Just about every comprehensive examination of aerial combat since WW2 has reached the same conclusion, that about 4 times out of 5, if you get shot down, it’s by an enemy that you didn’t see coming.”

    Oswald Boelcke from WW1. See the enemy before he sees you.

    So simple.

  4. And the same is true of tank combat, incidentally. After the war, extensive statistical analyses showed that around 4/5 times, the tank that saw the other first, and thus got off the first shot, got the kill. Even if the kill wasn’t on that initial shot, being ambushed and fired upon tended to unnerve the enemy and greatly reduce their subsequent effectiveness.

    The other interesting thing was that this effect was almost independent (within reason) of the relative gun and armor strength of the combatant vehicles. An M4 Sherman spotting a Tiger first was very nearly as likely to kill the Tiger as the Tiger was to kill the Sherman in the reverse situation.

  5. Bob Sykes says:

    Because of its small internal stores volume, on many (possibly all) missions the F35B will carry weapons and fuel tanks on pylons under its wings. This will severely degrade its stealthiness. Think F16 on the inbound, attack route and stealthy on the outbound, return route. Configured for aerial combat, it will be stealthy.

    On the other hand, its capabilities far exceed those the the Harriers it is replacing. The Marine amphibious carriers will now have an air wing similar in capabilities to those on the big deck attack carriers. We have nine Marine carriers. The F35B will essentially double the number of attack carriers in service.

  6. Sauerteig says:

    “I can make the decision, I’m going to go to the target, I’m going to release this weapon.” You better run that by the lawyers first, fly boy:

    “Before they shoot, U.S. troops have to navigate a tricky legal and political question: When is it OK for them to kill Taliban? […] Was there a risk that an airstrike would kill civilians? Were the men actually militants? Even if they were, did they pose a threat that made them legitimate targets on this particular night?”

    (The Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2016)

    I did enjoy the Aviationist author informing us that “21st century warfare and capability has about as much in common with wars of the past as your 1970’s land line has to your smartphone.”

    Let’s see… 1970… lengthy, undeclared war in Vietnam, also bombing Laos and Cambodia… nope, none of that sounds familiar.

    “Citing restrictions on hitting important targets like major ports, antiaircraft-missile sites under construction and MIG fighters on the ground during the bombing campaign called Rolling Thunder, [Air Force Colonel Jacksel Broughton] lamented ‘what was probably the most inefficient and self-destructive set of rules of engagement that a fighting force ever tried to take into battle.’”

    (The New York Times, Oct. 29, 2014)

  7. Sam J. says:

    It cost way too much. It’s another reincarnation of the F-11 that tried to do too many missions at once. I don’t deny that the sensors are fantastic. We should cancel it and have a competition between 4 or 5 aircraft companies. Give then each 2 billion and 2 years to do the best they can. The rules should fit on a single sheet of paper. Give us your best at say 60 million a copy and see what they come up with. One of the rules would be that it doesn’t need a cockpit that you can look out of. What’s the purpose? With multiple cameras and large LED screens surrounding the pilot you could have resolution better than the pilots vision. He could look in any direction and even program views such as wrapping the whole plane view(front. back, sides and rear) to a 180 degree area. Another would be that the vertical take off and landing could be “bolted on” in a reasonable time say 4 or 5 hours. That way the extra drag would just be for VTAL aircraft only yet we could have the option of adding it if airfields were taken out or small ships were needed for an attack. Might even add two bolt on models. One for VTAL and another with extended wings for ground attack. All the electronics could be the same just ditch the heavy helmets and use LCD (or other) displays.

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