The F-35 Cockpit: Enabling the Pilot as a Tactical Decision Maker

Dr. Michael L. Skaff created this briefing.
Skaff described his background in a recent interview as follows: I was an F-16 pilot out of the Air Force Academy. I was prior enlisted, and I’ve been with Lockheed Martin for about 23 years working on the F-35 cockpit since ’95. I flew out of MacDill, Shaw, and Luke during the Cold War.
For a full discussion with Skaff regarding the baseline F-35 please see

[slidepress gallery=’the-f-35-cockpit’]
  • The second slide highlights the key elements of the basic F-35 cockpit.
The highlights of the F-35 cockpit are:
  1. PCD -a large Panoramic Cockpit Display (PCD) which is a 20 x 8  inch contiguous piece of glass. The
    pilot interacts with this display through touch, cursor hooking, and voice
  2. HMD – the pilot wears a Helmet Mounted Display (HMD) in lieu of a physical
  3. Head-up Display (HUD). A virtual HUD (vHUD) is projected onto the visor.
    The vHUD is presented to each eye and is 40 deg wide by 30 degrees tall.
  4. Audio & Voice – stereo wiring is used in the headset in order to facilitate
    full 3-D audio as a software upgrade. A Voice Recognition System (VRS) is
    used for “housekeeping” chores.
  5. STOVL- the Short Takeoff and Vertical (STOVL) mode has been designed for safety
    and simplicity. The STOVL mode is extremely safe and easily trained to. In
    actual flight test non-STOVL pilots have been able to master it in solo on
    their first flight.
  6. JPATS – the F-35 cockpit is designed to accommodate the full JPATS flying
    population from a 245lb man to a 104lb woman.
  7. Escape- a Martin-Baker Mk-16 ejection seat provides for safe ejection. In the
    B-model, when in STOVL mode, the seat is automatically triggered to
    improve safety beyond the human’s ability to react.
  • The third slide focus upon the philosophy behind building the F-35 cockpit. The Pilot Vehicle Interface (PVI) design philosophy is “return the pilot to the role of tactician.” Managing workload and providing the tools, which will build and maintain situation awareness, accomplish this.

But more than that, information dominance is the design result. The F-35 is a complete weapon system and multiple F-35s are more than the sum of the air vehicles. When a flight or division of F-35s enters battlespace they become the dominant factor.

  • The fourth slide looks at the design philosophy for the controls and displays in the cockpit.The PVI was designed by pilot for pilots. This design
    approach views the pilot at the center of the of the air vehicle. From this point of view two control and feedback loops exist: 1) the internal loop and 2) the external loop. The external loop is the one featured in “Top Gun.” This is the
    fly and fight loop, but the internal loop is equally important. The internal loop is all about getting the air vehicle safely into and out of battlespace.  This is required in order to fly and fight.
  • The fifth slide provides a visual of the F-35 cockpit display.The PCD is the first thing, which the casual observer notices about the F-35 cockpit.The PCD is a contiguous 20 x 8 inch surface which is
    composed of two physical 10 x 8 inch displays for redundancy. This display space may be configured based on pilot needs into 12 windows of various and content, location, and size. The larger windows are referred to as portals. There are
    four portals.

The small windows at along the bottom are secondary windows and there are 8 of them. The entire surface may be controlled through touch, cursor hooking, or voice control. Upon closer inspection of the cockpit most recognize the paucity of switches and instruments. In fact, many pilots say this is the most naked cockpit in history (this is not true, the Wright flyer had fewerswitches).During the initial design everything was removed from the cockpit volume and had to earn its way back into the cockpit based on “combat value added.” Combat value means it must contribute directly to lethality, survivability, and be cost effective. Cost effective is “bang for the buck.”

  • The sixth slide shows the JSF conceptual display. The initial implementation of the PCD was one physical display of 16 x 9 inches. This design had three portals and 6 secondary windows. The design worked, but pilots asked for another portal.
  • The seventh and slides show the F-35 panoramic cockpit display.  The current F-35 looks like this. In this example, the pilot has configured the PCD into 4 portals with 6 secondary windows. There are 5 portal configurations, which the pilot can program, prior during mission planning. Once airborne, it is extremely easy to use the touchscreen to re-configure PCD.
  • For the eighth slide, we see three portals and 4 secondary windows.Portal one, on the left, is a large Tactical Situation Display (TSD). It is onto the format that fusion presents its view of battlespace. All F-35s share this view and contribute to its content. This is also the primary location that the pilot interactswith the air vehicle to sort and target. The two portals on the right are showing sensor data. In this case the Electro-optical Targeting System (EOTS) and the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR).
  • The ninth and tenth slides focus upon the mission reconfigurable aspect of the cockpit. The Mission Reconfigurable Cockpit (MRC) was a Contract Research and Development (CRaD) program, which Lockheed had, back in the early 90’s.  During this program Lockheed explored advanced fighter cockpit concepts.

Among these were vHUD, touch, voice recognition, and accommodation. The results of this research became the foundation of the F-35 cockpit 10 years later. The MRC contract allowed Lockheed Martin to explore the under pinnings of information dominance.The greatest challenge is how to bridge the gulf between information overload and information dominance.

Think of it this way: when you look at a populated spreadsheet you see data.  Data is important, but it is extremely difficult to understand by just looking at it. If you graph the data the meaning and importance becomes obvious.  We’ll call this information.  We can act on information unless there is too much of it. We need to cull out which information is of most importance for the immediate task at hand.  We call this INFORMATION DOMINANCE.  Information dominance is what makes the F-35 unlike any other weapon system.

  • The eleventh slide highlights the joint attack strike technology.  The follow on contract to the MRC CRaD was called Joint Attack Strike Technology Onboard/offboard (J/OBOB). This research assumed that the 5th generation tactical fighters would be connected. They could literally have an IP address and receive intelligence feeds while airborne. This really complicated the issue of information dominance.  It’s like a Google search which returns ten thousand results.  You suspect the desired result is out there, but how do you get to it.

The remaining slides look at the role of the helmet within the cockpit system.

  • The twelfth slide shows the Helmet Mounted Display. The vHUD being projected onto the visor is new technology and will change tactical employment. The jump from 3rd gen fighters to 4th gen brought a full head-up display.

The HUD was a paradigm shift, which dramatically improved lethality and survivability. In similar fashion the jump to 5th gen with a vHUD is a paradigm shift and has the potential to revolutionize employment. A physical HUD projects into about 1200 square degrees of battlespace directly in front of the aircraft. The HMD with vHUD opens the view
into over 41000 square degrees.  This is the full sphere surrounding the aircraft.

  • The thirteenth slide provides an example of the vHUD when the pilot looks directly forward where a physical HUD would be. F-35 pilots report that in about 10 minutes they become accustomed to the vHUD. The pilots recognize the potential improvements in lethality and survivability of the HMD.
  • The final slide provides an example of off axis symbology. In general, Lockheed only take key flight parameters and tactical symbology off axis. In the future Lockheed will investigate off axis attitude awareness symbology. The mil standards don’t yet address HMDs and off axis symbolgy. Lockheed will work with the Services to improve and update The standard as well as the HMD symbology.