The U.S. Air Force is working to expedite the learning curve for pilots who are learning to fly the fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter jet for the first time. The Air Force hopes to achieve this feat by offering a set of specifics and training instructions from pilots to enable countries that are acquiring the F-35 jet for the first time to adjust to its technologies quickly.
The experience of flying the aircraft, as well as the performance of the aircraft in a number of live-fire exercises and combat drills, might be one reason why international demand for the F-35 jet continues to climb quickly.
There is much discussion, speculation and debate about several possible, but yet-to-be-confirmed F-35 jet customers, such as the United Arab Emirates or even Greece, while at the same time the fourteen existing nations currently operating F-35 jets continue to request more of the planes. The existing program includes eight international program partners: The United States, UK, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, Norway, Denmark and Canada. This group has in recent years been joined by six Foreign Military Customers to include Israel, Japan, South Korea, Poland, Belgium and Singapore.
“We engage in collaboration and cooperation to help them bring on their aircraft in a way that takes advantage of the lessons learned we’ve had. We have decades of operating 5th gen aircraft but this is the first time when these nations have had a fifth-gen aircraft,” Gen. Kenneth Wilsback, the commander of the Pacific Air Forces, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in a special video interview.
There are a number of added advantages associated with having a number of allied F-35 jet partners, the most significant of which is interoperability. A common data link and technical architecture allows otherwise separated groups of F-35 jets from different countries to coordinate mission specifics, share targeting information and make adjustments in connection with one another. Of course, it is helpful to the United States for its allied partners to possess F-35s for deterrence strategies and combat capacity in the event that it were needed, yet having an ability to integrate otherwise dispersed or disaggregated operations across wide swaths of territory massively expands theater attack dynamics and mission reach.
“When we sell them the aircraft we include the maintenance and interoperability,” Wilsback said.
What makes flying the F-35 jet so different? Many F-35 pilots say that flying the fifth-generation fighter is an entirely new and different experience in many respects. While pilot skill is, of course, essential, what the F-35 jet’s computing and sensing architecture does is allow pilots to prioritize pressing, high-priority functions, which rely upon human decisionmaking, because so many procedural and flight-path specifics are automated and computer-enabled.
“We want our partners to cycle through our lessons learned faster and fly it like an F-35 straight up from the beginning. Don’t revert to flying the F-35 like an F-15. Don’t fly it like a fourth-gen. Take advantage of the capability,” Wilsback said.
One such example is something called Delta Flight Path, a special software program tailored to help with the take-off and landing process; advanced computer algorithms account for, integrate and balance a host of otherwise separated variables such as wind-speed, trajectory, angle of descent and other atmospheric conditions such as sea state or ship movement for maritime landing, in order to automate procedures for the pilot.
This massively reduces the procedural and cognitive workload typically required by pilots, especially when it comes to difficult landing conditions in either high-threat areas or rough seas in the case of the F-35B or F-35C variants. The F-35B’s vertical take-off-and-landing hover and descent, for example, happens somewhat independently of the pilot, meaning that it is controlled by and at the direction of the pilot even though much of the stabilization, navigational specifics and aerial maneuvers are autonomously performed by the aircraft’s sensors and computer systems.
Of course, there is also the well-known and often discussed sensor fusion, meaning that navigational, targeting and threat data are gathered, organized and integrated by computer algorithms and presented in a unified, readable way on a single screen for pilots. This naturally prevents a pilot from needing to look at disparate screens and monitors before comparing a number of interwoven variables such as speed, altitude, aircraft maintenance information, video feeds from sensor cameras, threat library target identification specifics and atmospheric details.
Aircraft functionality details, coupled with maintenance and performance specifics are analyzed, compiled and presented by the F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System, a computer system engineered to monitor and transmit key details regarding the aircraft’s many subsystems such as engine reliability, cooling, sensor conditions and other things.
An F-35 stealth fighter draws upon threat information from its Electro-Optical Targeting System long-range, high-fidelity sensors, and merges the intelligence with input from 360-degree cameras surrounding the aircraft called the Distributed Aperture System. Data from these computer-enabled systems is then integrated with the F-35’s Mission Data Files threat library offering specs, specifics, configurations and details identifying enemy aircraft from designated areas around the globe.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.