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

Mar 01 2016 - 208 Comments

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.

Enjoy.

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

 

  • Kevin Mawn

    Some words have more than one meaning. “Quantum” also refers to discrete and definite levels. I.e., one aircraft is an entire level above the other. It’s a pretty common usage.

    • ScoobiJohn

      i know its common usage now but how it ever got to be, i dont know! like i said i find it vaguely amusing when i hear i, to me, i always hear in my heard them proudly boasting of making a discovery, invention whatever really of tiny proportions :)

  • llamudos

    I’m a little puzzled? If the F35 has tech that allows the pilot a 360 degree view of all around it via AESA and EOTS at a range well beyond 100km, Why is everyone getting their knickers in a twist with regards to: can the f35 survive a dogfight against a 1970s F16? Am i missing something? Surely the logic is the F35 can’t be sneaked up on? Can someone please explain why its so important? The F35 will simply fire off an a2a missile at any enemy that comes in range from any angle or ask its friendly F22 pilot to take it out or send a drone to take the enemy out if its bored it could even ask the Navy to send a missile over to deal with the threat or maybe ask a ground launch to deal with threat or just avoid the threat and keep out of sensor range of any enemy threat. Can someone explain to me which other aircraft on the planet has this ability? F16, F15, F18, su27, su35, any Mig, f22, Pac, a10. eurofighter, rafale, griphon or j20.

  • llamudos

    The F-35’s weapons bay can overheat if if the plane is maintaining high speeds at an altitude of under 25,000 feet and an atmospheric temperature 90° F or greater. This may require slight modification to bay doors or an added cooling system modification. Remember this fighter is still under development! I would rather get the faults found and fixed now then when its fully operational

    • Titus Veridius

      It’s actually operational. What you mean by development is that we’ve shifted into a development methodology for our fighter aircraft which is similar to early access beta steam games. You over promise, then release a product with minimum features or less, and then add DLC over the next few years.

      The reason this methodology exists is because of the Pentagon selling super programs to Congress that are nearly too big to fail. Those programs dominate the marketplace for years. Lockheed cannot afford to lose and promises magic in order to fulfill program objectives that are ridiculously flawed.The Pentagon is buying a lifestyle choice and selects the winner with a wink and a nod.

      The next 30 years of American fighter history are spent troubleshooting the F-35 and making up for its flaws with other expensive programs. Like trying to figure out how to use UAVs to launch the missiles that the F-35 can’t carry. Hoping 180 or so F-22s will be enough. ^.^

      You could literally use the “still in development” excuse at any point in the next 10 years. Ridiculous.

      Meanwhile the Chinese…

  • DB45

    its about time the plane performs. they grounded 15 of them they better fix them for free. this plane will change war. if we can just push through 2 years we will have another good platform. we should only be 700 of them. we still need 4th gen stuff. f16 are cheap. buy 250 of those. stand off weapons are the future. that and subs we need more subs. 12 more submarine x’s fitted with 150 smaller missiles. no more carriers. smaller ones

  • Michael Hiteshew

    You’re a walking communist propaganda machine. Get some history education. Read the history of WWI and the writing of Italian general Giulio Douhet. You’ll understand the bombing campaigns of WWII better.

  • Avro Arrow

    Ok, so he flew… no, he sat in a simulator. This is a simulator that Lockheed-Martin programmed and could make the plane behave literally ANY WAY that they wanted it to. Well, ummm, according to Ace Combat Zero, the F-5 Tiger II holds like 50 missiles that can be used against both land and air targets. Maybe you should build that because that’s one awesome weapons payload, wouldn’t you say?

    Oh yeah, and one of the F-35 test pilots did something extremely dangerous and extremely stupid in late September that caused the F-35 (or US copy of the Russian Yak-141 if you prefer) he was going to fly catch fire. The dumb fool started the engine.

  • NoBeeS

    So the discussion is about an F-16 that is an excellent fighter (42 years old) in various configurations and ages yet a dated 28 year old variant of the F-16 aircraft beat out a “state of the art” fighter. While the pilots conclusions are true he still is comparing two very different aircraft. So what if the F-16 had the same avionics as the F-35? There is really too much to this debate but really the F-35 is a sub par fighter and will never dominate the air like it should. The US Govt handed over a pile of money and is getting something newer but not superior.

  • Florin

    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/quantum_leap

    I see you are just as informed on every level!

    • ScoobiJohn

      just because its become popular way to express a significant change doesn’t mean the usage is correct

      • Kepha

        “Quantum” originates from the Latin root ‘quantus’ meaning “how great.”

        The F-35 is a compromise, every jet is. The US (my country) is too broke to develop 3 different jets for the USAF, USN, and USMC. Will the -35 ever turn like a Block 30 F-16, probably not. But good or bad the -35 is here to stay. And most importantly, the teen series on average have well over 7,000 hrs on their air-frames. Some Eagles have near 10,000. The USAF is not going to halt the -35 program and re-wing 30yr old jets. And their avionics are nearing obsolescence (with the exception of a few AESA equipped F-15C’s). It’s just not going to happen-

  • Mikhail Lipin

    A nuclear explosion is a quantum leap.

  • Enoch Jones

    The Russian ENEMY. That’s who. This airplane is designed to destroy S-400s and T-72 tanks. It’s going to be fun to kill several thousand Russian fascist stormtroopers.

  • Enoch Jones

    So now you Russian Trolls are trying to get us to doubt our own language? Stop trying to lecture us on English language usage by reading from Google Translate. “Quantum” as used here by Frank is exactly correct and understandable to any REAL English-speaking American. By challenging the usage of that word, you out yourself as a Russian Fascist Stooge TROLL.

    • Kevin Kb O’Brien

      stop he was right just leave it at that don’t be an ass and start bad mouthing his person just because that is the only way to attack an educated person who know what they are talking about

  • Jack

    I would like to see how the F35 does in a dogfight against an Advanced Super Hornet or F15 Silent Eagle. I hear there are proposals that might call for scrapping the F35 all together & replacing it with a fleet of F15 Silent Eagles & Advanced Super Hornets & wait until a 6th gen multirole fighter can be developed to replace the F35. It is kinda too late for that now as the US Air Force, US Marines & other countries have already ordered allot of F35s.

  • ThePatriotMuckraker

    F-35 fanboys can’t deal with the truth that the F-35 is a glorified test plane- mass produced- and made operational. I like the shills pilot’s quote: “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».” Yeah, it shakes because the airframe is a pig, loaded with compromises and packed with wiz-bang tech. In 15 years each “Fail-35” will have to be junked for structural fatigue. This article is all paid LM PR.

  • Andyj

    So was the F-117… a fighter?

    • Jack

      The F-117 was more of a ground attack aircraft similar to what the A-10 is used for only with stealth benefits.

  • Jack

    So just curious here. Did they start painting them in the stealth paint & give it a more upgraded engine yet? I remember a few years back an F-35 prototype lost to an F-16 because it lacked the ‘cheat codes’ like stealth paint & upgraded engine 5th gen aircraft are supposed to have. That was a very stupid what I can probably safely call F-35 vs F-16 a publicity stunt that was supposed to make the F-35 look better than 4th gen jets like the F-16 but ended up loosing because they were dumb enough to put a prototype against a tried & true jet with a pilot that more than likely had lots of hours of experience in the F-16 where as the F-35 pilot was pretty inexperienced with the F-35.

  • M&S

    The F-35 is actually a biplane. Specifically a Beech Staggerwing. The fat belly ‘lifting body’ has a different longitudinal and relative height position on the airframe from the primary airfoil which means that any attempt to ‘share area’ across the triangle of the fuselage described by the wings is deceptive at best in it’s described lift performance.

    As the AOA comes up, one ‘airfoil’ hit’s it’s max effective lift quotient and starts to fall off the curve at the same time the other is still on the rise through what is, from it’s position, only the intermediate alpha point.

    As a result, the FLCS computer has to start taking away pitch authority to retain directional control as the airframe hovers near the stall. This is why the F-35’s mid-alpha zone is remarkably similar to the F-16s, at around 23-25`, even though it’s absolute alpha (60 units) is nominally a lot higher than the F-16s 27.5` and in the Hornet range.

    Who knows, it may even be able to get there. But it can’t roll to chase a threat which tucks under it’s nose if it does and the pilot will likely be dead of old age long before then.

    In point of truth, there is some question as to the need for extreme alpha pointing as the onset Gs can be fatal GLC hazards to pilots at the high entry speeds where pilots try to command the elbow as dynamic nose point assist on the missile and at lower speeds, you are opening up the HOBS envelope for the other guy as fast as you do for yourself.

    What isn’t arguable however is that the F-35 is short, by two missiles, what the F-16 brings to the merge fight so that it had _better have_ complete roll-to-pitch authority rather than tightening up as the alpha comes on because it is a ***gunzo machine*** in an SRM dominated world.

    And as a guns platform, it has a tiny wing, a huge internal fraction and thus very poor altitude performance with which to energize a 2-shot, ‘BVR fighter’, ACT strategy.

    It has a limited thermal window and ENORMOUS frontal area as wetted drag with which to engage in energy fighting below 20,000ft as, again unlike the F-16, it’s cruise optimized wing doesn’t have the option to flip the LEF up 2` and trim out the tails to add lift, using just the vortice flow off the LERX to motor around the turn with (go watch the F-16 vs. F-18E, vs F-22 comparative turn performance video on YT to understand what this means in terms of a one circle fight).
    Those tails are humping air to keep the nose up and pointed forward in any sustain turn fight which means you are bleeding E like a stuck pig.

    And the airframe performance values I’m describing were all characterized in the WIB report on an airframe which was fighting at 60% internal fuel with an EMPTY WEAPONS BAY and thus absent the 10,000 + 5,000lbs of gas and internal ordnance that would typify an AMRAAM+JDAM strike mission entering a defended target area.

    Finally, let’s be honest here: the world is moving towards optical and long-wavelength RF primarily because fire control RFLO works. WHY would you want to flat plate the airframe in a turning and burning fight where you remove all doubt as to your visual, radar and thermal signature presence?

    Most air combat occurs wings level, at BVR section spacing, with less than 4G on the airframe as a fight for dominant pole position through acceleration and closure phase geometry control. It is an exercise in _efficiency_, not bat turn aerodynamics.
    But it also occurs with a multiplicity of shot count so that you can load the dice on SSPK for the range value you are working towards.

    The F-35 does none of these things. It’s a lousy WVR fighter. It’s a worse BVR fighter. And it’s intended to operate at 900nm+ radials where it’s burner usage to control position is even more limited by the distance you have to come back out, over the fence, to even reach a tanker orbit.

    The Derpitude inherent to this triumph of pork over mission performance is just…outstanding.

  • Kevin Kb O’Brien
  • Kevin Kb O’Brien

    like quarks hehehe which are sub sub atomic particles or the stuff that makes up protons, neutrons and electrons

  • Titus Veridius

    Sorry I forgot about this thread. So the Air Force is already tossing around the idea of axing F-15 force and replacing them with F-16Vs. Replacing one air craft with another that doesn’t do the same thing but costs half as much to operate. More cost cuts to pay for F-35 operations (just like the A-10) So tell me, where is the capability that upgraded F-15s had, going to come from? The Air Force must believe it’s going to come from the F-35. It’s a “stealth” replacement….pardon the pun. Just you wait.

  • Titus Veridius

    The B-52 is reliable and carries a lot of shit. It doesn’t have to manuever. It doesn’t have to fly fast. It doesn’t have to have lots of upgrades to keep up with peer competitors because its job is to fly slowly and drop bombs on GPS coordinate in places where no one is shooting at it. We have a half century of experience fixing it and flying it. Furthermore, unlike the Russians, we maintain our shit and do life extensions on the aircraft when they are needed meaning we can keep them running for a very long time with high reliability.

    It’s not that the B-52 so great. It’s that it’s okay platform for what it does, and there is no good reason to replace it with something new that does exactly the same thing with virtually the same technology and capabilities.