Opinions about the F-35 Lightning II are ubiquitous, and they are usually focused on its staggering $300 millions-per-plane cost. Other coverage details the engineering struggles of the airplane as the Pentagon program advances, concentrating on evaluations from the Government Accountability Office and internal Pentagon program evaluators.
The Texas factory outside Fort Worth has been assembling dozens of airplanes a year, but that number is expected to triple by 2017 to meet obligations to customers of many nations. The ones Lockheed has built are being put through the paces by military pilots — the multi-role warplanes are being built at the same time they are being tested in order to save time on an already shattered schedule, to the chagrin of watchdog groups and congressional critics.
As the airplane continues testing, we're hearing from pilots from foreign militaries who are experiencing the airplane. One of the best of these reviewers is Maj. Morten “Dolby” Hanche, a Norwegian test pilot who writes on the site of Forsvarsdepartementet, the national Ministry of Defense.
The Kampflybloggen (“Combat Aircraft Blog”) has some frank discussions about the F-35 from the perspective of an actual user. Hanche is an instructor and assistant weapons officer with the 62nd Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where the pilots come to learn the new airplane. His comments are interesting because they are very specific when it comes to tactics when fighting in the airplane and their candor in describing its drawbacks.
Yesterday Hanche ran a detailed post about how the F-35 handles during mock dogfights. “The training objective is to exploit every opportunity to kill your opponent with all available weapons – both missiles and guns – while maneuvering towards a stable position behind the opponent,” he wrote.
Yes, a dogfight with guns. The common sense reaction to this should be, “I thought modern air-to-air fights are fought from miles away?” And that’s true, but the F-35 comes with 25mm guns, housed in a compartment that flips open when it's time to shoot. This hidden compartment is necessary to keep the radar-evading stealth shapes intact; anything dangling from a wing could return radar waves and betray the F-35's location.
Since the F-35 has these guns, or will in 2017 when they are operational, its pilots have to be ready for the unlikely scenario of a close-quarters fight. And being ready means having a training manual. Besides, Hanche points out, “This kind of training is always important because it builds fundamental pilot skills.”
Here’s how they set this up in Arizona. The F-35 and its F-16 opponent square off at a pace of about a mile and a half. One jet is the attacker, the other designated as defense. After that, it’s all about learning how to survive. This is a game of geometry and speed.
The way to survive a dogfight is to get into a position to take a clean shot. Hanche learned to use the ability of an F-35 to fly forward (its vector) while its nose is facing other directions. “The F-35 provides me as a pilot greater authority to point the nose of the airplane where I desire,” Hanche writes. “This improved ability to point at my opponent enables me to deliver weapons earlier than I am used to with the F-16.”
This is a benefit of the design, and Hanche uses it to full advantage. “Using the rudder pedals I can command the nose of the airplane from side to side,” he wrote. “This gives me an alternate way of pointing the airplane where I need to in order to threaten an opponent. This ‘pedal turn’ yields an impressive turn rate, even at low airspeeds.”
Slow speed maneuverability is a good thing, since internal Pentagon reports state that the F-35 can’t pull high-g turns with a loaded fuel tank. The warplane can only hit its maximum-g turns with the tank more than half empty, according to a report from the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation director, recently published by AviationWeek.
The F-35 is so polarizing that most who have direct contact with it are hesitant to complain. Hanche goes there more than others, stating simple facts about his experience. For example, he describes how the F-35 shakes and shudders on high-g turns and when the airplane is slewing sideways. Engineers call this “buffeting.”
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Since the ability to move in one direction while the nose points in another is so vital during a dogfight, buffeting is no small problem. “Several pilots have had trouble reading the information which is displayed on the helmet visor, due to the buffeting,” Hanche says. “Most of the pilots here fly with the second-generation helmet. I fly with the third-generation helmet, and I have not found this to be a real issue.”
Dogfighting is a visual fight — surprising, in the modern world of sensors and advanced missile seekers — and the F-35’s cockpit isn’t built for that. “The cockpit view from the F-16 was good – better than in any other fighter I have flown,” Hanche writes. “I could turn around and look at the opposite wingtip; turn to the right, look over the ‘back’ of the airplane and see the left wingtip. That´s not quite possible in the F-35, because the headrest blocks some of the view.”
There are a lot of things wrong with the F-35 that Hanche doesn’t address — too few air-to-air missiles, a vulnerable fuel tank, lingering software problems and the inability to fire weapons at maximum speed — but the program’s biggest problem may be its delays. Pilots like Hanche need time to get used to the new warplane and teach others how to fly the thing, warts and all, in any situation.
“The final textbook for how to best employ the F-35 in visual combat is not written,” Hanche says. “It is literally being written by my neighbor, down here in Arizona.”