Pilots at Eglin AFB, Florida, are starting to do a little bit of tactical training in the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
"I was fortunate to be part of the first USAF F-35A four-ship formation this morning," Col Andy Toth, commander of the 33rd FW told me on Jan 31 (it's been a very busy week). "We conducted a tactical intercept mission versus F-16s and it went well."
Four-ships are actually part of how a normal fighter wing operates, but given the relative immaturity of the F-35 as a weapons system, it was a morale booster for the airmen at the 58th Aircraft Maintenance Unit to be able to do that. They're starting to learn how to take care of the jet themselves without help from Lockheed Martin.
"We are learning the ins and outs of the aircraft and showing we can handle the maintenance on our own," says Senior Master Sgt. Eric Wheeler, a production superintendent at the maintenance unit.
I also wrote recently about the F-35's performance in the air--you can read that story here.
Right now, most of the information on the F-35 comes from the contractor, the program office, the occasional interview with a military test pilot attached to the JSF program, or reports put out by the Pentagon.
Pilots at Eglin can't really say since they are allowed to operate only in a very restrictive envelope, but Andy Toth was able to say this: "I will say in afterburner during takeoff, the acceleration is impressive and if you do not pull the nose up significantly higher than I'm used to in an Eagle or a [F-16] Viper, you could over-speed the gear very quickly and the retract 'in the well' speed is 300 knots versus 250 in the Eagle."
If one were to overlay the energy-maneuverability (E-M) diagrams for the F/A-18, F-16 or Typhoon over the F-35's, "It is better. Comparable or better than every Western fourth-generation fighter out there," Flynn says. That applies even to the F-35 B and C models with their respective 7g and 7.5g limits. "You're not going to see any measurable difference between the aircraft," Flynn says. In terms of instantaneous and sustained turn rates and just about every other performance metric, the F-35 variants match or considerably exceed the capabilities of every fourth-generation fighter, he says.
However, about a year and half ago, I spoke to Lt Col Matt Kelly, a US Marine Corps test pilot at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, when I was still at Defense News. Read the old DN story here.
Operational pilots should be thrilled with the F-35's performance, Kelly said. The F-35 Energy-[Maneuverability] diagrams, which display an aircraft's energy and maneuvering performance within its airspeed range and for different load factors, are similar to the F/A-18 but the F-35 offers better acceleration at certain points of the flight envelope.
"The E-M diagrams are very similar between the F-35B, F-35C and the F/A-18. There are some subtle differences in maximum turn rates and some slight differences in where corner airspeeds are exactly," Kelly said.
The two accounts don't seem to quite mesh, unless there has been some sort of substantial new discovery during that timespan that accounts for it. I believe Kelly was talking about a relatively clean classic F/A-18 Hornet--if memory serves--so that could account for part of it. Later that same year, Kelly again told me the F-35B and C both fly similarly to the Hornet when I was onboard the USS Wasp. And, I heard Kelly tell another senior Marine aviator stationed at the Pentagon that the F-35B flew like a Hornet during that same visit to the ship.
I suppose it could be possible a loaded up Typhoon offers performance comparable to a relatively clean Hornet, but I don't know that for a fact. I think we're missing some important information in this case and hard numbers are something no one is willing (with good reason) to provide.
We'll find out soon enough once the fleet aviators get their hands on the full envelope jets.
Photos by Capt Edward Schmitt, flight doctor, 58 Fighter Squadron.