What's it like to fly an F-35 Lightning?
We speak to a pilot of one of the few objects faster than a McLaren Speedtail
If you saw TGTV series 28, you'll have seen the 250mph McLaren Speedtail lose a race. A race against a 1,200mph F-35 fighter jet, mind you. Very little shame in that.
Keen to know more, we headed to RAF Marham - where the UK's first fleet of F-35 Bs is based - to chat to Station Commander Jim Beck. He's flown F-35s more than anyone else on site, racking up 900 missions since 2014, 300 in the air and 600 on the simulator.
"I’ve been incredibly lucky," he says. "I’ve flown F-16s, Typhoons, Tornados - the whole plethora of jets. What you see here is a revolution of them. If you’re a high jumper, this has gone up by feet, not inches."
Feel like more of a Goose than a Maverick? Click on for Jim's idiot's guide to flying an F-35...
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Don't worry, there's a LOT of autopilot...
"The jet fuses all of its data together and only presents about one per cent of it to the pilot, when a human decision is required," says Jim. "The actual 'flying' is the easiest bit. You don’t even think about it anymore. You ask the jet ‘can I do something’ and the jet will do it if it’s safe to do so. There isn’t a car like that out there.
"It won’t let you fly into the ground or into another jet, it’ll just say ‘No! Now you go and do your human things you need to do’. It’s just breathtaking, it really is. The controls only move for human comfort, to help us comprehend it. They're only really there because that’s how pilots have always been trained."
... especially when you're hovering in an F-35 B
"Autopilot is a little smarter in the STOVL (short take-off, vertical landing) and hover modes. We’ve got numerous hover modes but the coolest is when the engine is just holding you up, you’ve got no lift off the wings. All 40,000 pounds of thrust is keeping you in the air. You’re fully in autopilot at that point.
"We’ve actually got modes where it’ll decelerate itself alongside the Navy's new Queen Elizabeth carrier, by analysing what speed the ship is doing. It’ll come alongside and control its deceleration automatically. Returning to a boat is now actually quite a stress-free environment. Years ago, Harrier pilots would come back dripping in sweat thinking about STOVL or hover. We don’t do that!
"Let go of the controls and it just stabilises. When you’ve finished a manoeuvre you’ve asked the jet to do, the safest thing is to just let off the controls and it’ll right itself. It's probably the smartest autopilot in the world right now."Advertisement - Page continues below
The F-35's greatest weapon is actually data
"The dogfight exists but in a completely different domain now. If we were to go against an adversary, I'm doing it in a dogfight, but I'm not doing it in the jet's physical domain. It takes place on the information spectrum now. And that information is shared between a pack of F-35s.
"Ideally we never want to get anywhere near our adversary. We want the battle to be done tens and tens of miles away, far enough that I won't even get to see him through the naked eye. We're talking ranges where our radars never used to see the opponent. I’m going to shoot you before you can even see me."
But it won't be knocked out by a cyber attack
"We’ve put so much energy into making sure it’s not vulnerable to a cyber attack. At Marham I have a huge team – the cyberspace squadron – who are doing exactly that. It's 150 people, which is bigger than a frontline squadron. That’s how seriously we take it.
"We can power the jet without its online systems if we need to. Its brain conducts a really clever thing called a VSBIT – a vehicle systems built-in test. The pilot presses a button just before he's going to take off and the jet looks at itself and asks ‘am I fit to fly?’
"You’re watching its panels fly everywhere, it’s doing all this funky stuff, and then it comes back and says ‘VSBIT complete’. So long as that’s done, it doesn’t matter what’s happening on the outside world, the jet is good to go."
Humans still decide when to drop bombs
“The human still decides whether to fire a missile or drop a bomb,” Jim assures us. “There is a morality around warfare and some ethical decisions. At the moment no machine will ever make those. That’s why we’re still in the cockpit.
“That is fundamental to the way the RAF and Royal Navy do business. But we’ve got there by getting smarter and smarter. I’m in a great position now where my uncertainty of what’s going on is negligible. With certainty I know ‘that’s the enemy, I know he’s doing a bad thing and I’ve got to make the decision to drop the bomb’.
“People think the move into fifth-generation jets is about stealth. It isn’t. It’s about information. Whoever has the most – which is of decision quality – will win the fight. It brings an ability to look at the area around the target. When you’re dropping a bomb there’s no such thing as a pure kill, but my god, we move heaven and earth to be as precise and proportioned as possible, and we’ve got weapons now where we ‘dial down’ the effects. In simple terms we reduce explosive capacity so its effects are minimised.”
Most displays are through the helmet
"The helmet is awesome. Everyone talks about that fact it costs £250,000, but what you don’t see when you go into the jet is a HUD (head-up display). Fitting a HUD in modern jets is so expensive, so complex, and it’s really heavy. And we don’t have that in the F-35. The helmet is arguably a tenth of the cost of a HUD. And I'm no longer constrained to seeing what's in each bit of the cockpit, I've got all the displays wherever I look.
"The shell is built in Britain and it's bespoke to the pilot, because the inaccuracies of the eyeball need filtering to the human. It’s the ultimate suit, it just fits. It’s very light, ridiculously comfortable and tuned to your eyes so your eyes aren’t fighting the display. We don’t have a problem with pilots coming here with motion sickness, they’ve had that beaten out of them at RAF Valley!
"As for the physical controls and displays, the team worked incredibly hard so it is incredibly intuitive. There are two sticks with 18 buttons each. It takes eight hours a day for eight weeks to learn it all to the point it’s natural."Advertisement - Page continues below
The simulator is more extreme than the real thing
"The worst thing we do is call it a 'simulator': we’re actually fighting the jet more in there than we do in real life. We can do things in a highly classified simulator that we don’t want other countries to see. So we keep those activities in highly classified sims and a lot of our actual flying is validating what we’ve been doing in a synthetic environment.
"We test the tolerances, push and do things we don’t want to do in the jet itself unless it’s a real emergency. We stress the pilots in the sim more than we do in the jet and they come out dripping in sweat, they really do. It's then muscle memory once they get up there in the sky."
But don't worry, it's still exciting to fly
"Oh yeah, there’s an excitement to your first time flying the F-35 for real. You’re breathing slightly quicker. And I went in there with 2,000 hours in various other jets. I was ridiculously confident in my own abilities but still found myself nervous when I got to the end of the runway.
"The performance of this jet – when you let the brakes go and do a burner take off – it’s 'WOAH, well I wasn’t expecting that'. Once you get it airborne, and the sim has taught you everything, your nerves go right down. Then I brought it back and I’d never hovered in anything else – I’d just taught myself on the sim – so I was nervous. But as I got down, the first thing I said to the other pilots in the squadron is ‘my god, the simulator’s realistic’.
"Externally, it was probably looking quite a vanilla activity, but it felt good!"Advertisement - Page continues below
The older stuff is a weeny bit more involving, mind
"There is a romance about flying a Tornado," says Jim. "I have to say I went back. I was commander of our test squadron over at Edwards Air Force Base in California where we were putting the F-35 through its paces, and I came back one Christmas and asked if I could go in the Tornado sim. You’re manually flying it and I gave that jet the hardest landing it’s ever had because it was really clunky.
"Let's say I offered you the keys to a Sixties 911 or a brand new Tesla, and it’s a hot summer’s day and you can drive one to France. I bet by Dover you’d be wanting to hand the 911 keys back. There is a bit of romance about flying older planes, but we’re a professional force and it's more about what the jet can do. That’s the difference between a 'pilot' and a 'fighter pilot'. It's pulling the wings off the jet, seeing what it can do, and pushing your body to its limits.
"I can talk about Tornados, where I've had wings stuck at night and our touchdown speed was about 230mph and I got out and I was buzzing. But then you get out and see pilots who’ve flown an F-35 in a Red Flag mission – 40 jets versus 40 jets, all fighting the highest-end virtual war possible in training – and they’ve ‘killed’ 20 jets and have utterly destroyed the environment. That’s the ultimate buzz nowadays."
Image: Steve Sayers
Those 'Red Flag' missions are quite something
"It's what I call the world cup of fighter pilots. It takes place at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada - the most iconic place in the world for fighter pilots – with 200 of the world's best sat in an auditorium. Suddenly half of them leave and you realise they're the ‘enemy’ that you're about to go and physically fly against in a single environment.
"There’s every type of jet there – F-15s, F-18s, B-1s, F-35s, I've been on there with F-22 Raptors – and as you taxi out you’re seeing hundreds of jets and they're getting airborne every second, all in afterburner. The sun’s going down in Las Vegas, the air smells of aviation fuel and good god, if that doesn’t excite a fighter pilot, nothing will.
"Then you go up and you fight the battle. The young kids think they’ve practiced it all, then they look at the congested air space and think ‘oh my god, I've got to work out who’s bad and who’s good’. Over three weeks they go from literally doing 160bpm down to about 100bpm for the 90-minute exercise. They just grow."
It's quite an area to fly, full stop
"The Mojave desert is just brilliant. I was lucky enough to fly all the test missions out there. You get airborne from Edwards Air Force Base, which is where Chuck Yeager flew from. It’s where the Space Shuttle did its recovery, it's where they did the first supersonic runs… as a pilot, that’s as good as it gets. That’s the Nou Camp of airports.
"Then you’re at 15,000 feet and up into the ranges and there’s just everything flying there. What was really cool is we were known as the Black Knights, 17 Squadron, and Virgin Galactic were doing their tests so I thought ‘I'm going to do a bit of formation flying with the White Knight’, which is what they call themselves. The air space is just immense. You turn around and go supersonic over Edwards, just because you can. So they’re in their office at Edwards and the tiles are shaking and falling down because every jet goes supersonic above it.
"I like talking about the jet, it’s my second favourite subject. What’s the first? I’m a pilot…"