It’s when you climb into the cockpit and begin your startup. That’s where it begins. That’s where those often talked about 8 million lines of binary code show what they’re all about. That’s when the integrated systems come online on the large, glass touch-screen. That’s when the cleverness presents itself. No more navigating across the cockpit, reaching for the radios or engine instruments, it’s all right there in front you. The jet comes alive. Yes, Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) pilot Ian ‘Gladys’ Knight is impressed by the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. Is everything perfect? No. But they’re working on it.
Just days ago, he was flying the F-35 as part of an Operational Test & Evaluation (OT&E) mission that symbolizes the multinational effort that is the F-35 Lightning II, the fighter aircraft that will represent allied airpower for years to come. A Dutch pilot and jet, flying in the US and directed by a Canadian Joint Terminal Air Controler (J-TAC) over the weapons ranges near China Lake in California. Back at Edwards Air Force Base, Ian ‘Gladys’ Knight – no explanation needed for that tactical call sign – debriefs his colleagues after the flight. No OT&E without a debrief and lots of statistics and numbers.
However, not everything about the F-35 can be put into numbers and a first impression is one such thing. “I have about 100 hours on the F-35 now after flying 1,700 on the F-16 before”, says Knight. “On my first flight in the Lightning, I immediately noticed how smooth and easy the aircraft handles. It really is very solid and robust compared to the F-16. The first landing was already better than most of my landings in the Viper. I was genuinly impressed.”
His job nonetheless, is to see if he can find anything wrong with it. “At Edwards, we find out how the aircraft behaves in an operational environment. We are all experienced weapon school graduates, but we are not test pilots. We develop, test and validate tactics that make the best use of the aircraft’s capabilities. There’s no reason for us not to be critical towards the aircraft. It is after all the aircraft Dutch pilots will go to war in for the considerable future.”
According to Knight – who flew against a herd of modern fighter jets – not much seems wrong when it comes to air combat manoeuvring (ACM) in the F-35. “The F-35 performs similarly to the F-16 and F-18 and has it’s own strengths and weakneses. We try to take advantage of those strengths while avoiding that part of the envelope where other aircraft can beat us. That is what operational testing is all about: you take the aircraft with all it’s inherent strengths and weaknesses and come up with the best way to execute the mission. ”
World of awareness
The F-35 can stand its own against F-16s, F-18s and probably the like. But were the stealthy Lightning II really shines, is being the eye in the sky that shares information with other aircraft, striking targets itself when needed and defeating or misleading threats before they get anywhere near. “This aircraft provides another world of situational awareness. Compared to that, the F-16’s capabilities are rudimentary and obsolete”, states Knight
Last year, the Dutch F-35s flew complex missions with their F-16 predecessors. The main focus was fourth and fifth generation fighter integration and interoperability. “It was a great experience and good to see the added value of the F-35. One F-16 pilot even described our F-35 capability as flipping on a light switch: without F-35s in the fight they were struggling in the dark, with F-35s by their side they had very high situational awareness.”
The AN/APG-81 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and aircraft’s sensors paint a picture that is shared with other pilots by Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) and by using Link16 with older jets. The six infrared camera’s of the F-35’s Distributed Aperture System (DAS) provide the pilot with an infrared picture of the world – and the threats in it – beneath him by projecting that picture on the helmet’s visor. Knight: “A neat feature, to be able to look straight through the cockpit. It works especially great when flying at night, but it’s not something we use all the time.”
What is there constantly in the F-35, is buffeting. It could be regarded as unwanted but it has its advantages, says Knight. “The vibrations are noticable for the pilot, but they are also a way of getting feedback. It’s like the jet is talking to you, a sort of flying by the seat of the pants. We are curious to know the effect of the vibrations on gun accuracy, though. We have practiced ‘dry’ strafing runs at ground targets in our two jets, testing the flight profiles. But we do not have gun symbology in our helmets yet, so there’s no way of telling where bullets would end up if we would actually fire the gun. We hope to have gun symbology at least later this year.”
As far as weapons employment goes, the Dutch are about to test GBU 12 Paveway and GBU 31 JDAM guided munitions on the F-35. The GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, AIM-9X and AIM-120 air to air missiles and the gun’s PGU-48 25 mm rounds are to follow by 2018.
A lot more operational tests are to be performed before the first Dutch F-35s finally arrive in the Netherlands in 2019. Knight: “Next year will be testing and validating the new block 3F software, which will bring a lot of improvements and upgrades. Expansion of the flight envelope looms ahead, as higher g-loads become available with block 3F. We’ll exchange experiences with the Americans, and the British here. Edwards feels like a special place because of all the history here, but to be honest it’s also a bit quiet compared to many operational bases. That will change with the arrival of more aircraft.”
Change is also needed to reach the Lightning’s full potential. “We are generally impressed with the airplane, but it doens’t work as advertized all the time. That’s what we’re working on. Take the night vision camera in the current helmet; it just isn’t very good, but it will be better in the newer helmet. Also, in May it’ll be interesting to see how the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) holds up as we deploy one of our aircraft across the Atlantic for a visit to the Netherlands. Soon, we’ll be certifying air-to-air refueling with our KDC-10 tanker in preparation for that.”
Starting this week, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) brings its F-35Bs to fly alongside the Dutch F-35As. Knight: “Flying in mixed formations, together with US and UK pilots is a great learning experience and OT&E strength. It’ll be interesting to see the USMC short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant, plus the similarities and differences during operations. Now that the USMC has reached Initial Operational Capability (IOC) it will be good to find out which experiences their test squadron brings back from the field.”
For the Dutch, IOC is still some years away. The plan is to have the new fighter jet take the place of the F-16 from 2019 onwards. Its when the light will shine at its brightest when turned on.
© 2016 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image: Ian ‘Gladys’ Knight. (Image © Frank Crébas/ Bluelifeaviation.com)