Lots of people love the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, one of the most advanced, stealthiest warplanes on the planet. And lots of people loathe it, pointing to the ballooning costs and arguing America's newest fighter is more flash than function. But what's it like to fly it?
Despite all the public acrimony about the plane, we haven't heard much from the men and women who will strap into the cockpit. So, with F-35s now entering service in the U.S. and abroad, Popular Mechanics asked Air Force pilot and host of “The Professionals Playbook” podcast, Major Justin “Hasard” Lee, what it takes to fly the fighter.
The Right Stuff
“The first time I saw an F-35 was in 2015 at Nellis AFB [in Nevada],” Lee recalls. “They were new and sleek, albeit a bit husky. Their clamshell canopy along with the pilot’s Darth Vader helmet stood out. Looking into the cockpit I could see what looked like a massive iPad on the dashboard...the memory of [the F-35] taxing by is definitely seared in the back of my mind.”
Lee caught a glimpse of his future, but it would still be some time before he was able to get into the cockpit of the the fifth generation fighter (F-35s and F-22s are called 5th generation because of their advanced systems, while older fighters like the F-16 and F/A-18 belong to the 4th generation). “I flew F-16’s for seven years before I had the opportunity to cross over,” Lee continues. “F-35’s were number one on my list of around 20 different assignments.”
Lee accumulated nearly 400 hours of combat flight time with the F-16 Fighting Falcon before flying the F-35. Today, though, up-and-coming pilots have a much more direct route. Last year, the U.S. Air Force graduated its first class of what the fighter pilot community calls “5th-gen babies.” These fledging aviators were born into the world of the F-35 and its array of advanced systems. “They haven’t had to endure some of the frustrations, such as an old mechanically scanned radar, that come with fourth generation fighters,” Lee says.
Still, if you want to become an F-35 pilot, the odds aren’t in your favor. “I can remember my first day when the base commander gave us a pep talk and then asked us how many wanted to be fighter pilots,” says Lee. “All 30 of us raised our hands, to which he replied ‘good luck’ and walked out of the room.”
Lee went on to fly the T-6 high-performance prop plane for six months until seven pilots were picked for the “fighter track.” For another six months, these seven freshman pilots cut their teeth on T-38 supersonic jet trainers. After a year of flying, only four out of a class of 30 had the right stuff to become a fighter pilot.
Strapping the Jet on Our Backs
Despite the generational leap in technology from the F-16 to F-35, Lee says jumping cockpits wasn’t as dramatic as you’d expect.
“The F-35 buttons and software were derived in large part from the F-16,” he says. “There are more buttons, and each one has more functions, but in general, each one does something similar to what it did in the F-16.”
Familiar or not, the first flight inside $100 million worth of state secrets makes even a seasoned fighter pilot sweat. “There are no two-seat versions of the F-35. The first time you fly, you’re by yourself,” says Lee. “As soon as you take off, the only person that can bring the jet back and land is you."
He continues: “Once you become proficient in flying a fighter we call it ‘strapping the jet on our backs’ because it feels like you and the jet are one entity. My first flight was far from it and each switch actuation took several seconds to consciously think about—which in the air, flying a mile every 6 seconds, feels like minutes on the ground.”
While many parts of a mission easily translate from an old warbird to the new one, the F-35 offers a never-before-seen level of streamlined situational awareness. The F-35’s low-radar observability may be the plane’s flashiest capability, but pilots love how the F-35 fuses data from multiple sources into a single field of view. It’s really what separates the aircraft from anything that’s flown before.
“In the F-16, each sensor was tied to a different screen...often the sensors would show contradictory information” says Lee. “The F-35 fuses everything into a green dot if it’s a good guy and a red dot if it’s a bad guy— it’s very pilot-friendly. All the information is shown on a panoramic cockpit display that is essentially two giant iPads.”
Playing Well With Others
The F-35's ability to integrate all that information into an easy-to-interpret display doesn’t just benefit one pilot. As Lee points out, that integrated feed improves the situational awareness of any other aircraft around an F-35.
“Advanced sensors, sensor fusion, and networking capabilities allow us to be the ‘quarterback’ in the air,” Lee says. “Because ‘4th-gen’ fighters will be around for several decades, a significant part of our job is maximizing their potential. We can let them know where the enemy is by voice or over the network.”
The F-35 also received iPhone-like software updates and patches that translate directly into added capabilities and improved performance in the physical world. Lee says that the aircraft’s software wouldn’t permit the F-35 to turn nearly as hard as its air frame allowed until just such a software update last year. In five to 10 years' time, the F-35 might look the same, but its performance will be almost unrecognizable.
“Some may argue that certain ‘4th gen’ attributes are better today, but they aren’t looking 10 years into the future,” says Lee. “Those platforms are over 40 years old. They’ve been phenomenal workhorses but iterative improvements aren't going to win a high-end conflict in the 2030s.”
These new updates mean pilots must stay on top of these changes. Failing to study up on the latest update could mean “being left behind” says Lee, or even life-threatening. But its these steady flow of updates—along with its stealth and sensor fusion chops—that make the F-35 the new apex hunter of the skies.
“The reason the F-15 and F-16 have remained relevant for so long is because they were a forward-leaning departure from 3rd-gen fighters," says Lee. “Think of what we were flying 40 years before them: biplanes.”