Flying the F-35 – Experiences from the First Week
(Source: Norway Ministry of Defense; issued Nov 20, 2015)
The Royal Norwegian Air Force’s first F-35A pilot recounts his first week of flying his country’s next fighter. (LM photo)
On 10 November 2015 the first Norwegian F-35-pilot, Major Morten «Dolby» Hanche, flew the F-35 for the first time at Luke Air Force Base. After one week and four flights in the F-35 Major Hanche has summarized his impression of the aircraft so far in this blog post.

In order to make his post accessible to a wider audience, we have translated it into English. We have tried to remain as true as possible to Major Hanche’s original text, though some words are difficult to translate directly into English. For instance, the Norwegian word «sprek» which Hanche uses a few time to describe the aircraft, is commonly used to describe a person that is fast, fit and vigorous.

Here we have translated it generally as «fast», even though that doesn’t cover the full meaning of the word. Still, we hope the general impression comes through.

Major Hanche’s post:

I am left with many impressions after a handful of flights with the F-35 over Arizona. In this post, I will try to describe the feeling and perception I have developed flying the F-35 so far.

First things first; the aircraft is easy to handle on the ground. The brakes are direct and powerful yet predictable, and the nose wheel steering is precise. The steering has two «gears» making the process of maneuvering the aircraft in and out of its parking spot under the sun screens that the aircraft are parked under. I hardly noticed the cross winds when I took off for the first time. It was easy to put the nose of the aircraft where I wanted it when I raised it for takeoff. The aircraft was stable in the air from the second it lifted it off the ground, and requires no manual «trimming» on my part.

An odd experience I want to mention is the feeling of bringing up the landing gear. In the F-16 I really don’t notice it that much. In the F-35, however, there is no doubt that the wheels are being retracted. As my American buddy «Nails» said after his first trip: «It felt like someone hit the airplane with a hammer!» A solid and noticeable «CLUNK» tells you that the gear is up. It could possibly have something to do with the fact that the landing gear is quite huge.

With wheels up I quickly noticed another peculiarity with F-35; the aircraft has a kind of continuous quivering sensation. A kind of weak high-frequency tremor. A bit like the feeling you get standing on the top deck of an old car ferry where you can sense a weak vibration from the engine. This trembling is fairly constant until I begin maneuvering the aircraft more aggressively. That increases the force of the trembling until it is like driving a car on a graveled cottage road. This kind of trembling is often referred by the technical term «buffeting».

Buffeting can be a problem if it is too violent. In the T-38 training aircraft I once had an engine instrument (the tachometer) that was shaken out of the instrument panel. That is problematic. Vigorous shaking can also make it difficult to read the instruments in the cockpit, and thus prevent the pilot doing his job. In that case it becomes critical.

A more positive side to buffeting however is that it acts as feedback to the pilot. In modern fighters computers decide which control surfaces are to be moved and how much – “fly-by-wire.” That means the pilot misses out on important feedback through the rudder pedals and control stick. How much I move them is not directly linked to what is actually happening with the control surfaces. The F/A-18, for example, moves the ailerons gradually in the opposite direction during heavy maneuvering, without me as a pilot really noticing. The aircraft is however still doing what I am asking it to do. Most Norwegian F-16s have little or no buffeting when maneuvering.

That means that in the F-16 I have to use the instruments to get an impression of just much lift I am really demanding from the aircraft. I might be flying fast or slow – maybe dangerous slow – and the only hint I get comes from the gauges. In the F-35 I can physically feel whether I am operating the aircraft in its «good-zone» when maneuvering, or whether I am demanding too much from it and losing energy. I can also physically feel whether I am flying too fast or, worse, if I am flying dangerously slow in the landing pattern.

Critics have argued that the F-35 by definition is a slow aircraft, based on the balance between thrust from the engine and overall weight. However, when interviewed after my first flight, I said that I was impressed with the engine power of the aircraft. How can that be true? Am I bought and paid for by Lockheed Martin, or is it the Ministry of Defence that threatens government reprisals if I don’t provide «the official story»? I know that many have doubts regarding the F-35 when it comes to both maneuverability and engine power.

When I was a kid, my buddy Håkon and I would sometimes play «car trumps». The idea was to do to pull the card with the best car on it. The «best» car was usually the car with A) the most horsepower, or B) the greatest top speed (according to the card). My experience with aircraft so far is that the world is not black or white. «It depends» is an eternal mantra among pilots, and it is usually not easy to measure one system against another. Another point to consider is what data we are actually comparing. The F-16 manual for instance says that the aircraft is capable of going more than twice the speed of sound. I have flown more than 2,000 hours in the F-16 and have never been able to get the aircraft to go that fast. Is it not correct that the F-16 can achieve twice the speed of sound? Are we overstating the facts by claiming that this is the real performance of the aircraft?

I still claim that the F-35 is fast compared to the F-16, an aircraft I know well. Can this be explained as nothing but lies? I believe it can. The F-35 has a huge engine. Another important factor is that the F-35 has low aerodynamic drag, because it carries all the systems and weapons internally. The F-16 is fast and agile when clean, but external stores steals performance. It is never relevant to discuss the performance of a stripped F-16. Therefore, this is never as simple as discussing the ratio of thrust and weight alone.

In any case, technical discussions aside, I was impressed by how steep the F-35 climbed after I did a «touch-and-go» on my first flight. Without using afterburner, and with more fuel on board than the F-16 can carry, I accelerated the aircraft to 300 knots in a continuous climb. Acceleration only stopped when I lifted the nose to more than 25 degrees above the horizon. I do not think our F-16 could have kept up with me without the use of afterburner. I was also impressed with how quickly the F-35 accelerates in afterburner. On my fourth flight I took off using full afterburner. The plane became airborne at 180 knots. At that point I had to immediately bring the engine back to minimum afterburner to avoid overspeed of the landing gear before it was fully retracted (speed limit is 300 knots).

Another first impression is how stable the aircraft is when flying in close formation. I have flown a handful of different fighter aircraft, and I have never had an easier job of maintaining close formation with another aircraft. The F-35 feels stable and predictable when making minor adjustments – much the same feeling I have driving a large American SUV. Still, when I move the stick or the throttle, the handling is both quick and precise (A SUV with a V8 – at least!). Overall, flying the F-35 reminds me a bit of flying the F/A-18 Hornet, but with an important difference: It has been fitted with a turbo.

The final point that I want to mention in this post is the experience of sitting in the cockpit. After reading about poor cooling and high noise levels in the cockpit, I was of course curious. I was pleasantly surprised. The «office space» was cool and comfortable, but above all, I was surprised by how quiet it was compared to what I’m used to. Is comfort important in a fighter jet? I believe it is. Not only during long missions that can last up to 10 hours, but also in daily exercises. It is obvious that a noise-insulated cockpit reduces hearing loss for pilots over time. I would also argue that it improves flight safety because it makes it easier to hear what is being transmitted on the radio and because noise becomes tiresome with time.

I’m saving a little for a later. Just the landing pattern is worth a small post in itself!


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