Lockheed Martin has brought its F-35 promotion team and simulator to London town, which gave me the chance to "fly" the aircraft in its B and C variants and talk about the Lightning II with one of its senior programme officials.
I last got to try out the F-35 using this device at Lockheed's Fort Worth site in Texas in late 2010, and my first impression remains that with sufficient guidance this is a really easy aircraft to fly in basic operation.
With the UK currently favouring the F-35C, I started my simulator ride on the carrier deck, flying a quick circuit before lining up behind the ship for an arrested landing. Once talked through re the correct speed and angle of attack for the approach, the aircraft caught the wire with no problem at the first attempt (yes, the hook already works fine in the virtual world).
But with the UK also widely reported as possibly to reverse its late 2010 variant switch and go back to the short take-off and vertical landing F-35B, I also took the chance to get a refresher in flying that too.
Here's a quick sprint through the process. Press the button marked "Hook/STOVL" to the left of the main cockpit displays and push the throttle forward to deflect the nozzles to 90˚ for vertical lift, and then pull on the stick to climb. It really is that simple, as the aircraft's software will do the rest in correctly setting the doors, flaps, power settings and so on.
Compared with my previous attempt at hovering a British Aerospace Sea Harrier using a Qinetiq simulator, this is a world ahead in terms of man/machine interface and pilot assistance.
Once aloft, letting go of the stick sees the jet hold its altitude. Pushing the throttle forward picks up some speed before another press of the STOVL button transitions the B for conventional flight.
Okay, my landing wasn't textbook, by approaching the ship deck from a 90˚ angle and with a forward speed of about 20kt, but it did allow me to experiment with the button on the throttle which allows the pilot to adjust the controlled approach speed in 1kt (quick push) or 10kt (long press) increments. Use of the F-35's distributed aperture system also means there'd be no excuse for missing the deck.
It's easy to bash the Joint Strike Fighter for its cost and schedule difficulties, but love it or loathe it, the F-35 is a pretty remarkable piece of technology.
As I reported on Flightglobal earlier today, you can expect some noise from the UK before the end of March on whether it could reverse its decision to transition from the STOVL B to the carrier variant C. With the cost of converting its in-construction Queen Elizabeth-class vessels (or even only one of them) a complete unknown and the F-35B now out of probation it's not a totally crazy idea.