“Here’s what I’ve learned so far dogfighting in the F-35”: a JSF pilot’s first-hand account

A Norwegian pilot shared his experience flying mock aerial combat with the F-35.

As we reported last year, the debate between F-35 supporters and critics became more harsh in July 2015, when War Is Boring got their hands on a brief according to which the JSF was outclassed by a two-seat F-16D Block 40 (one of the aircraft the U.S. Air Force intends to replace with the Lightning II) in mock aerial combat.

Although we debunked some theories about the alleged capabilities of all the F-35 variants to match or considerably exceed the maneuvering performance of some of the most famous fourth-generation fighter, and explained that there is probably no way a JSF will ever match a Eurofighter Typhoon in aerial combat, we also highlighted that the simulated dogfight mentioned in the unclassified report obtained by WIB involved one of the very first test aircraft that lacked some cool and useful features.

Kampflybloggen (The Combat Aircraft Blog), the official blog of the Norwegian F-35 Program Office within the Norwegian Ministry of Defence, has just published an interesting article, that we repost here below under permission, written by Major Morten “Dolby” Hanche, one of the Royal Norwegian Air Force experienced pilots and the first to fly the F-35.

“Dolby”  has more than 2200 hours in the F-16, he is a U.S. Navy Test Pilot School graduate, and currently serves as an instructor and as the Assistant Weapons Officer with the 62nd Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.

He provides a first-hand account of what dogfighting in the F-35 looks like to a pilot who has a significant experience with the F-16. His conclusions are worth a read.


The F-35 in a dogfight – what have I learned so far?

I now have several sorties behind me in the F-35 where the mission has been to train within visual range combat one-on-one, or «Basic Fighter Maneuvers» (BFM). In a previous post I wrote about aerial combat in general (English version available), and about the likelihood that the F-35 would ever end up in such a situation. In this post, however, I write more specifically about my experiences with the F-35 when it does end up in a dogfight. Again, I use the F-16 as my reference. As an F-35-user I still have a lot to learn, but I am left with several impressions. For now my conclusion is that this is an airplane that allows me to be more forward and aggressive than I could ever be in an F-16.

I’ll start by talking a little about how we train BFM. This particular situation – a dogfight one-on-one between two airplanes – may be more or less likely to occur, as I have described in a previous blog post (Norwegian only). Nonetheless, this kind of training is always important, because it builds fundamental pilot skills. In this kind of training we usually start out from defined parameters, with clearly offensive, defensive or neutral roles. This kind of disciplined approach to the basic parameters is important, because it makes it easier to extract learning in retrospect – a methodical approach to train for air combat.

A typical training setup begins at a distance of one, two or three kilometers from the attacker to the defender. The minimum distance is 300 meters. That kind of restriction may seem conservative, but 300 meters disappears quickly in a combat aircraft. Starting at different distances allows us to vary the focus of each engagement. Greater distance means more energy, higher g-loads and often ends in a prolonged engagement. A short distance usually means that the main objective is to practice gun engagements, either attacking or defending.

Before the training begins, we always check whether we are “fit for fight”; will I be able to withstand the g-load today? «G-awareness exercise» implies two relatively tight turns, with gradually increasing g-load. My experience is that especially dehydration, but also lack of sleep affects g-tolerance negatively. If someone has a «bad g-day», we adjust the exercises accordingly and avoid high g-loads.

As the offensive part, the training objective is to exploit every opportunity to kill your opponent with all available weapons – both missiles and guns – while maneuvering towards a stable position behind the opponent. From this «control position» it is possible to effectively employ both missiles and the gun, without the opponent being able to evade or return fire.

So how does the F-35 behave in a dogfight? The offensive role feels somewhat different from what I am used to with the F-16. In the F-16, I had to be more patient than in the F-35, before pointing my nose at my opponent to employ weapons; pointing my nose and employing, before being safely established in the control position, would often lead to a role reversal, where the offensive became the defensive part.

Classic maneuvering towards the control position with an F-16 (blue arrow); the offensive aircraft moves to reduce the difference in angle, and to end up behind its opponent.
Classic maneuvering towards the control position with an F-16 (blue arrow); the offensive aircraft moves to reduce the difference in angle, and to end up behind its opponent.
Maneuvering 2
The offensive (blue arrow) choses a too aggressive approach, and ends up being neutralized by its opponent.

The F-35 provides me as a pilot greater authority to point the nose of the airplane where I desire. (The F-35 is capable of significantly higher Angle of Attack (AOA) than the F-16. Angle of Attack describes the angle between the longitudinal axis of the plane – where nose is pointing – and where the aircraft is actually heading – the vector). This improved ability to point at my opponent enables me to deliver weapons earlier than I am used to with the F-16, it forces my opponent to react even more defensively, and it gives me the ability to reduce the airspeed quicker than in the F-16.

Update: Since I first wrote this post, I have flown additional sorties where I tried an even more aggressive approach to the control position – more aggressive than I thought possible. It worked just fine. The F-35 sticks on like glue, and it is very difficult for the defender to escape.

Maneuvering towards the control position with an F-35 (blue arrow) the offensive party can allow a greater difference in angle (more on the side than behind, and still remain established in the control position.
Maneuvering towards the control position with an F-35 (blue arrow) the offensive party can allow a greater difference in angle (more on the side than behind, and still remain established in the control position.

It may be difficult to understand why a fighter should be able to «brake» quickly. In the offensive role, this becomes important whenever I point my nose at an opponent who turns towards me. This results in a rapidly decreasing distance between our two airplanes. Being able to slow down quicker provides me the opportunity to maintain my nose pointed towards my opponent longer, thus allowing more opportunities to employ weapons, before the distance decreases so much that a role reversal takes place.

To sum it up, my experience so far is that the F-35 makes it easier for me to maintain the offensive role, and it provides me more opportunities to effectively employ weapons at my opponent.

In the defensive role the same characteristics are valuable. I can «whip» the airplane around in a reactive maneuver while slowing down. The F-35 can actually slow down quicker than you´d be able to emergency brake your car. This is important because my opponent has to react to me «stopping, or risk ending up in a role-reversal where he flies past me. (Same principle as many would have seen in Top Gun; «hit the brakes, and he’ll fly right by.» But me quoting Top Gun does not make the movie a documentary).

Defensive situations often result in high AOA and low airspeeds. At high AOA the F-16 reacts slowly when I move the stick sideways to roll the airplane. The best comparison I can think of is being at the helm of ship (without me really knowing what I am talking about – I’m not a sailor). Yet another quality of the F-35 becomes evident in this flight regime; using the rudder pedals I can command the nose of the airplane from side to side. The F-35 reacts quicker to my pedal inputs than the F-16 would at its maximum AOA (the F-16 would actually be out of control at this AOA). This gives me an alternate way of pointing the airplane where I need it to, in order to threaten an opponent. This «pedal turn» yields an impressive turn rate, even at low airspeeds. In a defensive situation, the «pedal turn» provides me the ability to rapidly neutralize a situation, or perhaps even reverse the roles entirely.

RNoAF F-35 maneuvering

The overall experience of flying the F-35 in aerial combat is different from what I’m used to with the F-16. One obvious difference is that the F-35 shakes quite a bit at high g-loadings and at high angles of attack, while the F-16 hardly shakes at all. The professional terminology is «buffeting», which I also described in an earlier blog post (English version available). This buffeting serves as useful feedback, but it can also be a disadvantage. Because the buffeting only begins at moderate angles of attack, it provides me an intuitive feel for how much I am demanding from the aircraft; what is happening to my overall energy state? On the other hand, several pilots have had trouble reading the information which is displayed on the helmet visor, due to the buffeting. Most of the pilots here at Luke fly with the second-generation helmet. I fly with the third-generation helmet, and I have not found this to be a real issue.

What I initially found to a bit negative in visual combat was the cockpit view, which wasn’t as good as in the F-16. The cockpit view from the F-16 was good – better than in any other fighter I have flown. I could turn around and look at the opposite wingtip; turn to the right, look over the «back» of the airplane and see the left wingtip. That´s not quite possible in the F-35, because the headrest blocks some of the view. Therefore, I was a bit frustrated during my first few BFM-sorties. However, It turned out that practice was all it took to improve the situation. Now I compensate by moving forward in the seat and leaning slightly sideways, before turning my head and looking backwards. In this way I can look around the sides of the seat. I also use my hands to brace against the cockpit glass and the canopy frame. With regards to cockpit view alone, I had an advantage in the F-16, but I am still able to maintain visual contact with my opponent during aggressive maneuvering in the F-35. The cockpit view is not a limitation with regards to being effective in visual combat, and it would be a misunderstanding to present this as a genuine problem with the F-35.

On the positive side I would like to highlight how the F-35 feels in the air. I am impressed with the stability and predictability of the airplane. Particularly at high AOA and low airspeeds. It is a peculiar feeling to be flying the F-35 at high AOA. I can pull the nose up to where my feet «sit» on the horizon and still maintain level altitude. I’m also impressed by how quickly the F-35 accelerates when I reduce the AOA. High AOA produces lots of lift, but also tremendous induced drag. When I «break» the AOA, it is evident that the F-35 has a powerful engine. The F-35 also makes a particular sound at this point. When I quickly reduce the AOA – stick full forward – I can hear clearly, even inside the «cockpit» how the F-35 howls! It seems like the «howling» is a mix of airflow over the wings and a different kind of noise from the engine. Maybe this isn’t all that relevant, but I still think it´s a funny observation. Another aspect is the kind of reaction I get when I push the stick forward; the F-35 reacts immediately, and not delayed like the F-16. Looking at another F-35 doing such maneuvers is an impressive sight. The various control surfaces on the airplane are large, and they move very quickly. I can monitor these movements on the screens in my cockpit, and I´m fascinated by how the control surfaces move when I manipulate the stick and pedals. Especially at high AOA, it is not always intuitive what control surfaces move, and by how much.

(The short video below gives an impression of just how much the control surfaces on the F-35 can move.)

The final «textbook» for how to best employ the F-35 in visual combat – BFM – is not written. It is literally being written by my neighbor, down here in Arizona! We have had many good discussions on this topic over the last few weeks, and it feels very rewarding to be part the development. I would emphasize the term “multirole” after experiencing this jet in many roles, and now also in a dogfight. The F-35 has a real bite! Those in doubt will be surprised when they finally meet this “bomber.”

Image credit: Lockheed Martin

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.