Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The verdict on the F-35, while still incomplete, looks much better

The F-35 is America's new 5th-generation fighter. There have been a lot of criticisms of the aircraft, largely claiming that the plane's "do-everything" role leads to it doing nothing well. I think there likely is a certain amount of validity to that criticism -- no way can the F-35 do close air support as well as the A-10, which is why the Air Force has delayed the retirement of the aircraft -- but one of the most prominent criticisms has centered around the F-35's air-to-air combat capabilities, as noted here, here, and here.

A very well-qualified voice recently spoke out about the F-35 as an air-to-air fighter, and he sounds like a fan. He is a Norwegian test pilot with a lot of experience in the F-16, to which the F-35 is often unfavorably compared. Norway, a NATO ally, is one of the main customers for the F-35 Lightning II. This pilot is impressed, and his credentials are impeccable:
Kampflybloggen (The Combat Aircraft Blog), the official blog of the Norwegian F-35 Program Office within the Norwegian Ministry of Defence, has just published an interesting article, that we repost here below under permission, written by Major Morten “Dolby” Hanche, one of the Royal Norwegian Air Force experienced pilots and the first to fly the F-35.
“Dolby” has more than 2,200 hours in the F-16, he is a US Navy Test Pilot School graduate, and currently serves as an instructor and as the Assistant Weapons Officer with the 62nd Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
He provides a first-hand account of what dogfighting in the F-35 looks like to a pilot who has a significant experience with the F-16. His conclusions are worth a read.
"Dolby" sounds pretty sold on the F-35 to me;
The F-35 provides me as a pilot greater authority to point the nose of the airplane where I desire. (The F-35 is capable of significantly higher Angle of Attack (AOA) than the F-16. Angle of Attack describes the angle between the longitudinal axis of the plane — where nose is pointing — and where the aircraft is actually heading — the vector). This improved ability to point at my opponent enables me to deliver weapons earlier than I am used to with the F-16, it forces my opponent to react even more defensively, and it gives me the ability to reduce the airspeed quicker than in the F-16.
Update: Since I first wrote this post, I have flown additional sorties where I tried an even more aggressive approach to the control position — more aggressive than I thought possible. It worked just fine. The F-35 sticks on like glue, and it is very difficult for the defender to escape.
The rest of the longish report is similarly favorable. It is worth reading the entire thing. I have said previously that the F-35 is ill-suited for carrier operations, because no pilot flying over water far from land wants only one engine. I think the aircraft is ill-suited for close air support functions because it moves too fast and carries too little ordinance. It's can't compare to the A-10. However, it is becoming more likely that the criticisms of the plane as an air-to-air fighter are not particularly valid. More data is needed, but the F-35 looks like it might be pretty good at some of the roles it is being given. I believe it still highlights the foolishness of one-size-fits-all aircraft, but it might not be the unmitigated disaster some are trying to portray it as.

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