Regardless of all the sensors, here is why F-35 pilots need to visually check their 6 o’clock

In a recent post, we have explained that a recently leaked Pentagon report highlighted the poor “out-of-cockpit visibility in the F-35A”, a shortcoming that would limit the pilots ability to see aerial threats surrounding the plane putting the costly 5th generation plane at risk.

The problem would lie in the large head rest that impede rear visibility and the ability of the pilot to check the aircraft’s 6 o’clock for incoming aerial or surface threats.


Image credit: U.S. Air Force

Many readers have argued that the limited rear visibility is no big deal for a modern aircraft equipped with sensors capable of detecting threats coming from any direction.

Although it is quite true that the F-35’s sensors equipping the aircraft (at least when it will get most advanced software configurations) would probably be able to spot any aircraft attempting to get on the aircraft’s tail, no matter where the pilot is looking, we can’t completely rule out the possibility that the pilot will have to turn is head rearwards to visually ID a plane approaching fast from 6 o’clock.

A Joint Strike Fighter pilot could be forced to look towards the tail to check the smoke of an incoming SAM (Surface to Air Missile) and perform the proper evasive maneuver, or to look for an incoming hostile stealth fighter (for instance a Russian or Chinese one) detected by the onboard Distributed Aperture System (DAS) close to “the merge”.

In a Within Visual Range scenario (no matter how likely it is for a stealth plane), the ability to check their six can make the difference between death or survival. That’s why visibility is important regardless the capabilities of the defensive suite.

Still, it must be said that, as soon as (if?) all the problems with the devices are solved, wearing their Helmet Mounted Display System Gen. II, that fuses all the information coming from the plane’s sensors along with imagery fed by a set of cameras mounted on the jet’s outer surfaces, providing a X-ray vision-like imagery, F-35 pilots will be able to check their six, head rest or not.

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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.


  1. Isn’t DAS to presisely allow the pilot to have an unobstructed view even straight through the airframe? Providing it works as advertised, that is.

    • The Problem with DAS is three things as I see it.

      A. The HMD doesn’t work properly in the current situation.

      B. The screen input in your visors will only show a blip with information. The way you look at a SAM is how the contrails have moved in the last seconds, where it’s current curvature or line will take it in a 3D view if you will.

      C. Complexity. The F-35 is built with several state of the art systems and ideas which individually is quite impressive. But when you add them all together, the complexity of the aircraft becomes extremely high and the risk that one of those systems would fail could possibly have devastating effects. Seeing as the ability to look through everything depends on a lot of various subsystems, loosing just a single of them could cost you your X-ray vision.

      • Um, DAS will still show you the contrail of the SAM. It’s like a video feed, not a photoshopped still photo…

  2. Forgive my attempts at commentary, I am merely a humble, half-year long reader of this fine blog and have gone out of lurker mode to make say something and a possibly obvious question.

    1. It took them this long to officially say something about the impaired — lack of a non-existent rear view, its obvious, everyone noticed, nothing to turn your head around for (no pun intended), it ain’t no bubble, so why is this a covered up ‘surprise’ to the brass and manufacturers? (Besides pure incompetence, chances are this is one of the reasons it got shot in the mock up).

    2. Even with the x-ray tracking helmet to look back/through, why not make the overall F-35 system redundant with cheap wire link camera screens to pear back and be place beside the head rests to where a pilot would logically look in classic aviation battles or driving in the city (just as dangerous). If the camera ports compromise stealth, then try coating them and integrate them around the cockpit and very small.

    These are simple questions, to put it simply: “Why not just add rear mirrors?” could be done literally or with Radio Shack civilian tech???

    • Unfortunately the stealth capabilities of the F-35 would be lost if they re-designed the cockpit in this way.

      • Not necessarily. Just look at the F-22 with its raised canopy. Now the biggest problem is, how on earth would they find the funds, the time and the support to make a multi billion dollar drastic design change when they’ve already been put on quite narrow restrictions?

      • If they really want to, they could release the extra tune up in the next (whenever) Block-something. The tune packages could also be custom per job, 16, 15 already have a bunch, being stealth shouldn’t limit their ability to just the original plan.

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