Flying the F-35 – a pilot perspective

The F-35A Lightning II (Joint Strike Fighter) has been the most controversial combat aircraft acquisition Australia has entered into since the heady days of the F-111 strike/reconnaissance platform 50 years ago. The F-35 has been accused of being an over-expensive, over-weight but under-performing combat jet that can’t manoeuvre in a dog fight and can’t get the jump on other 5th Generation East European jets. Is this reality or is it the uninformed perception of the naysayers?

When the RAAF’s first two F-35s visited Australia recently to attend the Avalon Air Show, military personnel and the public alike got their first look at the fighter jet that will be at the forefront of fighter combat capability for decades to come. The stealth fighter will be ably supported by the F/A-18F Super Hornet and the new EA-18G Growler electronic warfare jet.

Australia’s first F-35 pilots, Squadron Leader Andrew Jackson and Squadron Leader David Bell flew the two jets from the United States to Australia.

On a visit to RAAF Amberley after the air show, before returning the Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, the pilots shared their view of the F-35 and the fighter capability it brings to the Australian Defence Force.

Squadron Leader Jackson said that the developmental issues that have faced the F-35’s early development are normal for an advanced fighter jet, and that it is on track to surpass other advanced fighters.

Asked why the F-35 has attracted such public criticism, but not from Defence aviators, SQNLDR Jackson said, “The aircraft is operated at a level that is beyond most people’s ability to comprehend, in terms of the amount of public knowledge out there about the jet.

“This aircraft is absolutely the standout platform, so from that perspective a very good decision was made to go for the F-35. From a survivability point of view, we have stealth, enabling us to disrupt the adversary kill chain at any particular stage, to avoid being targeted, engaged and shot at. A key aspect is that the F-35 was built from the ground up to be low observable [to radar] which gives it a huge advantage over 4th Generation fighters.”

Having sensor fusion that channels a wide range of battlefield information onto [iPad style] cockpit displays provides a ‘God’s eye’ view of the battlespace, which is a key advantage with F-35.

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