How does the F-35 JSF fly and fight?

In May 2006, I wrote an article about my experience flying with the F-35 using the Lockheed Martin’s JSF Cockpit demonstrator. Since the article was written only in Italian and many foreign readers have been following my recent comments and articles about the F-35B, the Harrier and the STOVL debate, I thought it could be interesting for them to read it in English, especially because I describe also the way the aircraft flies and the way it transits from horizontal to vertical flight. I will also add the slide which were presented during the press briefing that preceeded the cockpit demo that I received from LM some weeks after my “flight”: even if they are some 5 years old, they provide an interesting look into some of the technologies introduced by the JSF.
Have a good read.

Today (May 9, 2006) I had the opportunity to travel in the future (even if it was a short-range trip, let’s say fifteen years ahead) as I attended an orientation session with the JSF cockpit demonstator. Under the supervision of a Lockheed Martin F-16 pilot, I virtually flew the F-35, a 5th generation highly advanced fighter which makes the so-called “sensor fusion” a reality and provides the pilot a stunning situational awareness, while still allowing for simple handling. The first feeling that I had when I was aboard the simulator, hosted by the Comando Squadra Aerea of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF) at Centocelle, Rome, was that of being in front of a popular flight simulator from Digital Image Design: “Super EF-2000”. SEF2000 is a PC game that came out in 1997 and that I enjoyed a lot in 1998-99. The graphics for that time was excellent, the scenario’s complexity was good, the only flaw was the being too “easy”. It was basically a game and not a real flight simulator like Microsoft Flight Simulator or Falcon 4.0. The flight model was realistic but the plane was too easy to fly even for a newbie and the information provided by the avionics was too “user friendly”, rather different from those actually provided by aircraft of the 3rd generation. Well, I found the same easiness, the same “at a glance” symbology right in the JSF. The aircraft does not have a HUD (Head Up Display), but has one big touch screen that can be configured at will by tapping the screen with your fingers (like a PDA). The information normally presented to the pilot in the HUD are “projected” directly into the pilot’s helmet that is capable, through the sensors of the aircraft, to see in all directions through any surface. The pilot then has the impression of flying into the air (without an aircraft surrounding him) and can visually track the enemy aircraft with is sight not hampered by the tail or wing of his plane. Then, during a hypothetical dogfight the pilot is able to follow the enemy aircraft through the cockpit mounts, as if suspended in space. For the rest, as mentioned above, the symbolism is clear enough: the red triangles represent the enemies, the white are “unknown” and the greens are friendly aircraft. The JSF is able to share all its information via a network with the other elements of the flight or with AWACS and Rivet Joints. The menu can be browsed with a cursor moved by a small joystick located on the throttle. In short, everything pretty straightforward for someone like me, used to work at the computer; an experience somewhat “shocking” for those pilots who are accustomed to the analogue Starfighter-style cockpits. Obviously, with the JSF the pilot should focus on mission and information management, rather than worrying about “flying the aircraft”. By means of the DAS, the pilot can see all the electronic emissions on the 360 degress around the aircraft. He may even know the search and tracking frequency of the ground radar. Of particular interest was the opportunity to test the hovering capabilities of the aircraft, that is in fact also available in the STOVL version that interests both the Marina Militare (Italian Navy) and the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF). The pilot, by means of a switch manages the transition from conventional flight to the Harrier-style, so to speak. The aircraft autonomously directs the nozzle and reduces the speed to the IAS (Indicated Air Speed) previously set through a dedicated button on the throttle (which is also operated in automatic mode). Once in “vertical” mode, the aircraft is extremely simple to fly, even thanks to the camera underneath the fuselage that allows the pilot to see downwards, and to decide where to place the wheels. Moving the stick forward or backward the aircraft climbs or descends: with a couple of attempts, you can also manage to maintain the desired vertical speed. With the rudder, you can point the aircraft nose wherever you want and even a novice can land with some precision and without major problems. The only difficulty I encountered during the flight was distinguishing between all the switches on the throttle, that pushed up with the little finger, allowed me to select the autothrottle. As for the rest, airplane is a real dream, extremely easy to be piloted and able to provide the pilot with all the information he might need, in the preferred layout.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.