To say that the F-35 project has come in for lot of bad press over the years is bit of an understatement with any number of critics and armchair pilots pitching in on every little piece of bad news that percolates through the internet. But with the aircraft now being deployed by the airforces of those countries which have bought them, the real story is how good or bad it is comes from the people that really matter, namely pilots that actually fly the plane every day and the aircrews that look after them, this is why they think the F-35 is the best fighter in the world today.
Although it was seen by some as a replacement for three main aircraft, the F-16, F18E and Harrier, a sort of 3 in one plane, its really three new planes that share the F-35 name with some commonality between them such as the cockpit, engine, parts of the airframe and avionics. Pretty much everything else specifically designed for tasks required for each of the A, B and C variants.
The A version is the lightest and intended for the airforce with conventional takeoff and landing, the B is the heaviest and intended for the Marine Corp and Navies like the Royal Navy and has the Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing ability allowing it to be used from small carriers and makeshift runways closer to the front line. The C version is intended for the US navy carriers and uses assisted takeoff and arrested carrier landing.
The F-35 is a so-called fifth-generation aircraft because it has taken advantage of the technology that has developed in the last 20 years or so, but what does this mean in practical terms.
Well to give you a very simple but effective example you only need to look at model aircraft and helicopters in particular. About 25 years in the mid 1990’s I used to fly model aircraft for a hobby. Now at the time model helicopters were the most difficult of all the types of aircraft to fly. These took a lot of skill and practice just to get them to hover above the ground and do basic manoeuvres, just like the full-sized ones. Much of the time it would all end up rather badly and you became an expert rebuilder and well as an expert flier.
Fast forward 25 years and now you can buy toy helicopters and their modern equivalent the quadcopters from around $20 that a child could fly in the house and even do aerobatic tricks a the touch of a button, something that would have been unimaginable 25 years earlier.
So what has changed, the helicopter or quadcopter, be a toy or proper model still works in the same way as they always did. What has advanced hugely in this time is the electronics, namely the miniaturisation of computers and electronic gyros has allowed tiny autopilots to be developed that do the hard work of keeping the helicopter or quadcopter stable in the air and you just need to tell it to go up, down left or right.
Now imagine what you can do when you have tens of billions of dollars and 20 years invested into not only into the electronics and computers but also software and highspeed data connectivity. The F-35 is the closest there is at the moment to being a software-defined aircraft which allows it to change fundamental aspects of the planes behaviour whilst it is in flight and allows it to do things that were previously impossible.
Although the F-35 is a multirole aircraft, one of its primary goals is as some pilots say is to “kick down the door” by suppression of enemy air defences and to allow other aircraft in behind them. To do this they need to know what they are flying into well ahead of time, with all possible information available to identify the target and eliminate it without being detected until its too late.
Pilots talk of the much increased situational awareness they have in the F-35 with far more information being gathered than any previous generation aircraft, in fact they have been called a mini version of the AWACS planes even though they have less powerful radar. Because of its stealth capabilities, the F-35’s can get much closer to the threat and get a much more detailed view which is sent to the rest of the mission group but this is only a part of what they can do.
Because the same aircraft are supplied to NATO partners, pilots from the different countries can train and learn from each other and this allows for a much more integrated unit when the time comes.
The F-35 has been described as a flying sponge soaking up signals across the electromagnetic spectrum but whilst keeping its own emissions such as its radar cross-section and the heat signature from the engines heat to an absolute minimum along with its stealth capabilities.
Compared to previous generation aircraft, The radar on the F-35 is electronically steerable instead of mechanically. This is so fast that it can effectively do the job of a surface to air radar and then switch to an air to air radar and back again and integrate the data so that it looks like one combined radar view to the pilot.
The F-35 has a Distributed Aperture System or DAS, this is comprised of six infrared cameras flush mounted to the aircraft’s skin giving it a 360 degree coverage to look for other planes or rocket motors of missiles. It also has radio antennas embedded in the edges of the wings and tail to detect radar from the ground or air.
If any one of the sensors picks up a signal of interest, others are automatically trained on to the same line of sight to fill in any missing data. If the threat is a missile, the DAS can work out its position and course to locate the launch site as well as alert the pilot to take action.
If the signal is determined to coming from an area covered by the radar, its automatically told look in the same area to find more information about the threat.
All of this is done without pilot involvement and the information is prioritised by the central computer so that only the most important information is given to the pilot. This greatly reduces the workload that in previous generation aircraft would have taken a crew of two to handle even though they would be working with much less information.
This and the jets stealth capabilities allows F-35 pilots to detect an enemy threat at a far greater distance than before, allowing them to deal with it before the enemy even knows they are there.
F-35s work in groups where all the sensor data is shared within the group’s network and the command centre. Just four F-35s could cover an area about 130km deep by 200km wide. This fusion sensor information allows all the F-35 pilots in the battlespace to see the same picture. If one F-35 picks up a threat all the others are alerted and the pilot from one F-35 can see what another F-35s sensor suite is seeing, all this makes it almost impossible for an enemy to make a surprise attack on the group.
Having multiple sensors types on multiple aircraft that are linked together means that if an enemy is able to jam one, others are still available and because of their networked nature, other F-35s in the network can identify the source and launch countermeasures.
This is why so much has been invested into making the F-35 as easy to fly as possible, the pilot has a huge amount of information about his surrounding at his fingertips so if it takes you all your time to fly the plane you can’t handle all this information effectively.
Take the helmet for example which is an integral part of the plane. This is custom made for each pilot for a perfect fit and is lighter than previous types for less neck strain in high G manoeuvres. The helmet provides a 360 degree view around the aircraft of where ever the pilot is looking and also shows all the relevant data the pilot needs overlaid in his field of view.
The helmet can control the radar to track along the pilot’s line of sight even if his view is blocked by the body of the aircraft itself and can generate a fire control solution for guns and missiles simultaneously, meaning that he or she can look through the body of the plane to see the target without having to change the position of the aircraft.
The helmet also contains a night vision camera that shows flying at night to the pilot, is almost like flying in daylight which greatly reduces the chance of disorientation and It can also show the infrared image from the DAS cameras around the plane, again giving a 360-degree coverage. Colour weather radar data can be shown on the pilot’s visor to see thunderstorms, squall lines and fronts that could be a hazard to the plane.
The F-35 is far more self-aware than any previous aircraft. The aircraft monitors its entire airframe and how well is it reacting, if it detects a problem it will adapt the whole aircrafts flying characteristics to compensate. It can also do the same depending upon what the pilot is requiring of the plane and changes the way the aircraft flies to make it as easier for the pilot in demanding situations.
Much has been made of early tests where the F-35 lost out to a 40 year F-16 in a dogfight but the software controlling the plane has come a long way since then. At the 2017 Paris airshow, Lieutenant Colonel David “Chip” Berke confirmed the planes real dogfighting abilities by performing manoeuvres that had previously been done an F-22 Raptor with thrust vectoring but in an F-35 without thrust vectoring.
Jon Beesley, the Lockheed F-35 Chief Test Pilot said that the F-35 was as manoeuvrable as any other aircraft. The Russian fighters are often shown performing amazing manoeuvres but that what you’re really seeing are the skills of an exceptional pilot, but that the F-35 is an aircraft that everyone can fly exceptionally.
Beesley also said that they used the navy approach for test manoeuvres with a high angle of attack, that’s when the nose is high in the air and the aircraft slows dramatically. One of the tests included turning off all the flight control limitations and getting the plane “all wrapped up” to the point where it lost control, then turning the flight control system back on and having plane recover itself with little or no input from the pilot.
The F-35B STOVL version also shows the flight control system can make the pilots life much easier than the Harrier it replaces as Squadron Leader Andy Edgell of the RAF can attest to. As an Ex Harrier pilot he said that landing the Harrier on an aircraft carrier could be borderline terrifying and hovering was like riding a unicycle, you have to continuously pedal or keep moving something, whether it’s your left hand, your right hand or your feet.
The F-35B, by contrast, could hover by itself hands-free for as long as it had fuel in its tanks. Edgell was the first to perform an aft landing on an aircraft carrier, that’s basically landing on the carrier from the wrong end, a procedure that could be used if the carrier was dead in the water but facing the wrong way into the wind for landings, again something that he said was really rather benign because the plane adjusted its self to compensate to fly with the tailwind.
The F-35B is one of the few planes that can do Shipborne rolling vertical landing using the thrust vectoring and the flight control system to slow down and come to a stop using just the computer control disc brakes. This would be used when the plane might still be carrying a full weapons load and a vertical landing could damage the landing gear otherwise.
These are just a small selection of why many pilots think F-35 is the best fighter in the world today and this is just the first foray into software-controlled aircraft, something which we will see a lot more in the future but for now, the F-35 is the king of the hill.