Pilot reaction to flying the F-35B


Ever since the F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) version of the Joint Strike Fighter first flew in the hands of BAE Systems’ test pilot Graham Tomlinson in June 2008 we have heard plenty about the easy and precise nature of the jet’s controllability. Commenting about STOVL operations in particular, pilots tend to focus on the ‘push button’ ease of vertical landings compared to the Harrier and the unusual (until you get used to it) ‘walnuts in a blender’ sound that comes from the lift fan.

However virtually everything we have heard so far has been from seasoned military or industry test pilots who were involved in the development and evaluation of the F-35B, or leading instructor pilots assigned to initial training. But now that an increasing number of regular U.S. Marine Corps squadron pilots are flying the F-35B at MCAS Yuma, Arizona, with VMFA-121, what do they think? Their view is bound to be of wider interest as the JSF is prepared for its first overseas visit to the U.K’s Royal International Air Tattoo and the Farnborough airshow later this summer.

Lockheed Martin’s Code One magazine has produced an interesting piece on F-35B operations at Yuma which includes interviews with some of the squadron’s first cadre of qualified pilots. Numbering 16 by the time of Code One’s visit in March, the roster is still growing to match the number of aircraft now operating from the base. Following the delivery of the first F-35B in late 2012 VMFA-121 now has its full complement of 17 aircraft, the last three of which were delivered in December 2013.

Preparing for a sortie at Yuma (Code One)

Here are a few snippets from the story:

Transitioning from Harrier/AV-8B and F/A-18 to F-35B:

Capt. Brian Miller, who came from the F/A-18D, explained the transition in simple terms: “In a Hornet, we had a center stick. In the F-35, we have a sidestick. I don’t even think about the difference now. Once I landed and took off in the simulator a couple of times, I was comfortable the stick location.”

Learning the F-35B’s short takeoff/vertical landing procedures:

“You would think former Harrier pilots would have an advantage with the F-35B STOVL modes since they have experienced those modes before,” continued Miller. “They may be more versed in the engineering dynamics and physics of STOVL operations. But in terms of cockpit controls, STOVL mode in the F-35 is almost completely backwards from the Harrier. So F-18 pilots may have an advantage since they don’t have to unlearn STOVL habits.”

…and from another pilot Capt. Jonathan Thompson, a former Harrier pilot now with the VFMA-121: “The F-35B is designed to be very intuitive in hover mode,” he explained. “To a pilot coming from a conventional fighter, hover mode is intuitive. Push down on the stick and the aircraft goes down. Pull back on the stick and the aircraft goes up.” Hover mode control in a Harrier, however, is a little different. Up and down movement is controlled with the throttle. Left and right movement is controlled with the stick.

“Whereas I used to pull back on the stick to point the thrust down to land the Harrier in hover mode, I push forward on the stick to land the F-35 in hover mode,” Thompson continued. “That said, the F-35B hover technique is just as easy to learn and just as easy to become second nature. Former AV-8 pilots just have to be more deliberate until STOVL mode operations become more routine. Short takeoffs and vertical landings are some of the skills and habit patterns we develop in the simulator.”

(Code One)

Increased situational awareness:

“The biggest situational awareness enhancer in the F-35 is the radar,” Thompson continued. “The way the F-35 presents the radar picture in the cockpit is most impressive. The ease of use is an eye opener though. The Harrier has the APG-65 radar, which is very old. Still it provided a lot of situational awareness we would not have had otherwise. But I can’t tell you how many times I flew the AV-8 without a working radar. We performed the mission anyway, but without as much situational awareness.”

The F-35’s helmet mounted display adds to situational awareness. “Hornet pilots may have experience with a JHMCS [Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System] before coming to the F-35,” Thompson added. “But the ability to have a contact on the radar and then be able to look out the cockpit and have that contact appear on my visor is as different as night and day from Harrier operations.”

Old and new - Harrier and F-35B fly by the Salton Sea. (Code One)

Developing future capabilities:

The pilots and planners at VMFA-121 are part of a larger team developing tactics and procedures that capitalize on these new capabilities. “As the radar gets more stable, as the electro-optical targeting system, or EOTS, gets more reliable, as pilots become more proficient, as the flight envelope opens up, we can look at the tactics, techniques, and procedures we can bring forward from legacy aircraft,” explained Miller. “We can consider performing those procedures differently in the F-35 because of all the new capabilities it brings to the fight. We are just starting to break the surface on tactics development.

Similarly pilots are looking forward to a larger part of the flight envelope being cleared. “Flying at 400 knots and pulling 4.5 g’s in this fighter is difficult because it wants to do so much more,” Miller said. “Tactically we are rarely going to be flying the aircraft at less than 400 knots.”

The upcoming Block 2B software provides weapon capability and expands the flight envelope to Mach 1.2, 5.5 g’s, and fifty degrees AOA. The F-35Bs will eventually be cleared to operate at Mach 1.6 and seven g’s.

Discuss this Blog Entry 6

Colin (not verified)
on Apr 25, 2014

Really AW? Is this supposed to be reporting? This is incredibly pathetic. I'm really, genuinely flabbergasted that you'd publish LM press materials and pretend it's unbiased commentary. Very, very sad.

RSF (not verified)
on Apr 27, 2014

I'm afraid I have to agree with Colin, there doesn't appear to be much critical thinking going on in this article.

The are many serious questions that could have been posed in response to much of the commentary taken from Code One (which is a Lockmart marketing blog) but the opportunity was wasted.

While I understand that AW needs to present opinions from both sides of the F-35 discussion, giving LM free advertising is probably not the best way to accomplish this.


on May 27, 2014

We should bare in mind that the F-35B is widely assessed as being very easy to fly, notably when transitioning between flight modes. The engineers responsible for the control laws and system integration in this flight regime should be praised for doing a difficult job and producing a great result.

Trouble is, the overall aircraft is pathetic waste of money and not suited for the operational task.

on May 29, 2014

Over priced , over budget and under achieving. Complete waste of money and resources.

on May 30, 2014

An excess of automation in the approach to hover (designate a target on the ground with radar, helmet or FLIR, or use INS presets, press the magic button and get magically computed distance to hover automation of the glideslope and forward vs. vertical thrust component transitions) says more about the limits of pilots in adequately controlling a vectored thrust platform than it does the greatness of the jet.

With pilots already reduced to the status of 'recovery aids' from practically the opening days of SAGE operations in the 1950s (the same as for the British and the Russians with the old Markham datalink) the big question becomes why you are hanging 10,000lbs of cockpit enclosure off of a fragile front end extension of the inter-inlet frame when you could remove the pilot and let the jet do most of the flying automatically.

Similarly, there is no reason why the APG-73 could not have long since cascaded to the AV-8B, along with a digital FLCS and a helmet sight, using the same rolling-VL techniques to respond to weight increases. Stealth means nothing in CAS and AV-8B is not an FOL platform anyway.

Indeed, the problem with all of this is that the F-35 is not bringing much to the picture which could not have been installed via upgrades in the older platforms, and thus the very length of generational separation from pilot access to these 'downloadable apps' equivalents to a civilian IPad is distorting pilot perception of improvement when we -could- have had alternatives like Falcon Eye (far more reliable head steered FLIR) since the 1990s.

What must also be considered is that these gadget systems offer limited (non enduring) tactical leverage compared to what the threat can achieve with similar, quick-fix, installations in airframes which are not compromised by the enormous costs of three different landing modes and stealth.

Is the F-35B superior to the AV-8B in up and away performance? Sure. What isn't? (Maybe the A-10...).

But is it even mildly /comparable/ to the flight performance of a J-10/11/15/20? If not, what happens when that J-10 mounts a high detector density IRST and a DAS system linked to auto defense FLCS and EXCM capabilities (maybe AESA jamming) to defeat missiles?

Suddenly you are firing 'both missiles today!' at a threat which is capable of defeating the arrow _and seeing the archer_ to shoot back with! And the compromises of STOVL on total shot carriage become additive to the certainty of the threat copying DAS/EOTS and APG-81 capabiltiies for their own platforms.

These easy-reach systems, by themselves, thus bring Gen-4+ up to a level of performance which can counter the F-35 VLO while aerodynamic performance in fact greatly exceeds that of the rather anemic Lightning's already.

As justification to the enormous investment in STOVL plus RFLO without the Cost and Weight issues these avionics gimmicks do not overcome the operational compromises for three different _landing modes_ (less than 1% of total flight, none of it under threat!) whereby a .889 F135 engine with the necessary dry thrust for STOVL is so over-fanned it's TSFC matches that of the J79 from 60 years ago.

Radius on this jet is not going to be 450nm it will be lucky to be 250nm.

Similarly, it's delicate gear and tires make it incompatible for use from big deck carriers, taking away Marine fixed wing RAG support for the USN. This at the same time _no one_ has economically justified a transition to 11 Marine mini-decks which are oil burners and have no supporting airwing (AEW&C, Jammer, tanking etc.) for the 25 jets onboard (6 if they have helos as well).

Operational shortcomings deriving from overemphasis of differentiated landing modes were engineered into the program, not from tactical need but as an explicit means to preserve Service Turf R&M. If we need three airforces then Roles and Missions (i.e. up and away, pointy end of radius, _combat_) capabilities should have been what drove the jet's capabilities from the outset and landing modes should have been communized as they were on the F-4.

Instead, the attempt to preserve three differentiated air forces for one nation must be seen as a political condition which has resulted in a mediocrity of easily matched aero performance for which 90% of the countermeasure 'solution' for other nations lies in avionics 'apps' that are easily copied.

The F-35 is a _truly bad idea_ and has been so from the outset.

on Feb 2, 2016

If you think Gen 4, 4+, or 4++is going to survive on the modern battlefield, you're delusional.

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