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Flying the F-35 is ‘Magic,’ Pilots Say

by philewing on July 10, 2012

FARNBOROUGH, England — When’s the last time you heard a fighter pilot shrug, look down and say, “Eh, my airplane sucks.” Or as one might say here, “Blimey, me jet is roobish!”

So all other things being equal, it wasn’t surprising that three experienced aviators convened by defense behemoth Lockheed Martin raved about its F-35 Lightning II, but their descriptions about operating it were nonetheless interesting. In the small world of fast-jet drivers, the number of F-35 pilots is minuscule.

Lockheed’s chief test pilot, Alan Norman, said he was amazed how “easy” it was to learn to fly and master the F-35. The Marine Corps’ top F-35 trainer, Col. Art Tomassetti, said young aviators don’t need to learn to read analog gauges and memorize unsafe RPMs or temperatures the same way they used to; instead the F-35’s glass cockpit has green, yellow and red indicators that give such info in a second. And BAE’s test pilot, Peter Wilson, a longtime British Harrier driver, said flying the B was simply “magic.”

Wilson described how much work it took monitoring the Harrier’s controls, controlling its power, and generally trying to put the airplane where he wanted as he hovered and landed. (“You had to be an octopus to fly the Harrier,” Tomassetti quipped.) With the F-35B, Wilson said, he pushes a single button, and the jet can slow from 200 knots to a hover by itself, “as the airplane looks after you.”

Wilson was asked about the ungainly appearance of the B in its short takeoff and vertical landing mode, when the jet sprouts all manner of crazy hatches and ports and even a big air brake aft of the cockpit. Do all those surfaces make it tough to fly? Far from it, Wilson beamed.

“You think, ‘what’s the pilot doing?’” he said. “He’s pushing a button and flying as normal.” From the cockpit, the B does exactly what it’s told and its pilot doesn’t even notice the brake or the hatches or any of the rest of it, Wilson said.

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