2013-01-16 By Jonathan Glancey
Everyone I meet involved in the F-35 project talks lyrically about the computer wizardry of this digital-era aircraft. I ask the same analogue question, over and again, of the test pilots: so what’s it like to fly?
‘A no-brainer,’ they chorus.
They talk so fervently about the Star Wars aspects of the F-35 partly because it is the easiest aircraft any of them has ever flown: pilots are free to manage the weaponry while the F-35, more or less, flies itself. ….
Tucked away inside the Lockheed Martin complex, Dr Mike Skaff, the chief engineer of pilot/vehicle interface for the F-35 programme, and a former USAF F-16 pilot, guides me through the simulator.
The seat is comfortable, the view commanding, the controls minimal. Turn on the battery. Press the starter. In 90 seconds, the virtual F-35B is ready to fly just as the real aircraft would be: unlike most aircraft, the F-35 performs all necessary safety checks automatically and extremely quickly. The instrument panel is a glass screen measuring 20x8in. As with an iPad, you touch it to bring up the information you need. Pilots can also talk to the aircraft; it talks back.
Pushing the left-hand throttle forward and pulling ever so gently on the stubby right-hand control stick, take-off is smooth, almost imperceptible, and the climb rapid. Up we go, above what I take to be a 3D map of Afghanistan.
The aircraft rolls, loops and darts about with minimal input from the pilot. You might expect this of any existing ‘fourth generation’ fighter jet, such as a USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon or RAF Typhoon, but it is a revelation to someone like me, a qualified pilot with experience of piston engines and no more than a ‘second generation’ Hawker Hunter jet.
The F-35B, however, is ‘fifth generation’. Not only is it stealthy in the military sense – all but undetectable by radar because of its origami form, its special coating, its hidden engine and low heat emission – but it can also perform truly extraordinary tricks through its continuously upgradeable computer software and complex engineering.
What sort of tricks? Well, here I am turning towards the airfield. Not only will the F-35B land itself, but it will also hover at the touch of a button. Where hovering a Harrier is not unlike spinning plates on a pole on the tip of your nose while riding a trick bicycle on a circus high-wire – and no mistakes are affordable – the F-35 stops in the air, just like that, the pilot’s hands off the controls.
With a second push of the button and a touch of throttle and stick, the F-35 soars back into the sky. Skaff suggests I might like to take out a ‘bad guy’.
I don’t play computer games, but surely none could be as easy as this? With its complex radar, stealth capability, sensors and lasers, the F-35 finds enemy aircraft invisible to the eye. I trace my finger across a matrix on the glass screen and lock on to the enemy. I am not even pointing the aircraft in their direction. I don’t need to.
The F-35 can see and sense across huge distances in all directions. I select a missile from the store of weapons concealed in the fuselage, squeeze the trigger and, pulling away, watch a digital countdown. Zero: enemy destroyed.
My simulated flight may have been a little all-over-the-sky, yet given a couple of hours I’m sure I could be a Top Gun, ready to climb into the cockpit of the real thing and, armed with that Darth-Vader-eat-your-heart-out helmet and a stiff dose of the Right Stuff, ready to take on the enemy wherever they may be threatening freedom on land, sea or air.
Today’s fifth-generation fighter, hugely impressive, deeply seductive, upgradable and so very important and perhaps necessary to so many people’s security, jobs and freedom, is, oddly, already beginning to seem a part of military aviation history.
Excerpts from the following article:
For a discussion by Ed Timperlake and Mike Skaff of the evolution of combat learning associated with a fleet of F-35s see the following: