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

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┬áminuscule.

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.

  • Chris

    Anyone else concerned this is making the pilots lazier and too dependent on instruments? Electronics will ultimately fail and if the pilots are becoming too “armchair” in their flying will they be equipped to handle these contingencies?

    • Phono

      hard to say … electronics are probably more reliable then a human, and can be laid out redundant – Pilots can’t be redundant within a plane. Furthermore, most probably any modern plane will fail if the electronics fail, no matter how strongly the Pilot is integrated into the electronics system. There are no ropes to control the flaps. Being aware of, and having an access to, the onboard computersystem would probably be more helpfull in the case of a failed subsystem, then being the most brilliant Pilot.

    • STemplar

      If the electronics fail it’s time to bail out l would think.

    • Cute

      Yeah, like fly-by-wire. What were they thinking with all these fancy schmancy new instruments?

    • F-111 John

      Are you concerned that the pilots rely on a computer to fly an inherently unstable aircraft like the F-16? If the electronics ultimately fail, your only option is the yellow handle.

    • tiger

      See the report on the Air France Air bus crash. You may have a point…..

    • Stan

      I would rather the pilot were concerned with the plane’s sensors than flying. Situational awareness is helpful in all areas of life.

    • Jason

      As Phono alluded to, modern aircraft are built with SEVERAL redundancies as for as electronics are concerned. Some planes are actually physically IMPOSSIBLE for a human to fly without the aide of computers to monitor stability and control.

    • Anthony

      You know nothing of aviation if you think a pilot can afford to be lazy. And I am not talking just about fighter pilots. Aviation is not a career, or hobby for the lazy especially combat aviation.

    • Cory

      I would hope that the pilot they choose proves to be equally advanced in both physical and mental arenas, as the aircraft’s electronics proves to be. That said, the advanced systems do not make the pilot lazy but allows unnecessary stress to be alleviated, (reading the old controls and having to maneuver the jet to sustain proper balances, as opposed to the F-35 which does it for you) thus, providing the pilot with quicker reaction time and, perhaps, a rational response.

    • Mark

      All pilots are trained to work with failed instrument parts.

    • LtCo388ret

      Having fewer systems to keep an eye on, or gauges you need to monitor through-out a mission gives that pilot more time to focus on the chore at hand, either defeating the enemy with a see- first, shoot- first, get to go home- first, missile shot or putting your bomb load 100′ (In Iraq, 95% of the bombs I dropped were dumb) closer without 50-70% of the workload you would usually have is something that all pilots would greatly appreciate and by no means would make him lazy.

      There is always something to do on a mission, while having fewer systems to monitor will not make a pilot lazy but will give him the ability to focus on the mission and not the systems.

      My time in the Air Force flying fast jets had taught me anything that will reduce my workload will increase my ability to do the job at hand and get my butt home in one piece! I’ve been retired since 2005 after 20 years of flying F-16’s out of Hill AFB, a total of 26 years served overall. My first assignment after flight school was in A-7’s in late 1983 until my transition to the F-16 in 1985. I flew in both Iraq wars with 134 missions.

    • MCGH1

      As long as they aren’t responsible for getting Apollo 13 back home to Earth Chris, no worries.
      Saving military lives in the newest Millenium appears a digital exercise now vs. the cerebral/physics exercises of old.
      Terribly relieved that NASA is far more particular with her new recruits, at least their Captains sans crew will all return to terra firma in one piece.
      Assuming they remain funded, of course.

  • elmondohummus

    The whole invocation of “magic” disturbs me. “Magic” is mysterious and not meant to be understood. It implies a black box of ritual, not a competent grasp of fundamental reasons for how something works.

    Also: “You think, ‘what’s the pilot doing?’” he said. “He’s pushing a button and flying as normal.” Anyone remember the 1998 “Lost in Space” movie? When Matt LeBlanc’s character rips on the Jupiter 2 by saying “And the monkey flips the switch”? That, too, comes to mind when reading this article’s quotes.

    • Thomas L. Nielsen

      All modern aircraft, whether civilian or military, are already chock-full of magic black boxes. The day the first dynamically unstable aircraft took to the air (the F-16?), it took away the pilot’s ability to fly without those magic black boxes. Here, as I read the article, the flight control system merely takes over one of the more strenuous and difficult task (i.e. landing the bugger). A bit like the way your new Mercedes can parallel-park itself at the push of a button.

      It’s a sign of the times. Remember what Arthur C. Clarke said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Or are you advocating a return to cloth, wire and pushrods, and the sort of engine that could be repaired by the local blacksmith?

      Regards & all,

      Thomas L. Nielsen

      • aerodog79

        X-29 comes to mind…

        • aerodog79

          DOH! Falcon flew sooner (tho’ the ’29 was wack).

      • elmondohummus

        That’s taking my point too far. I’m not objecting to technology at all. What I’m warning about is the difference between being in ultimate control and ceding too much control to the automation.

        I’m talking about knowledge and understanding; hence my reference to “competent grasp of fundamental reasons for how something works” as well as the whimsical quote from Lost in Space.

        • elmondohummus

          … cont’d:
          The basic tension I’m referring to is best illustrated by the difference in how Boeing and Airbus approaches things, and whether or not a system allows pilots to override “envelope” limitations (for lack of a better term; non-laymen can and should correct my terminology, please). While I’m only a layman, I’m struck by the online discussions between pilots regarding the Flight 447 crash, and how the human errors were exacerbated by misunderstanding of the various “Laws” of operations, as well as the restrictions the system put on pilot inputs (which again, is the basis of my statement about understanding systems in my post above; it’s a direct reference to Flight 447 and Junior Pilot Bonin’s actions during the event). It’s perhaps arguable that such automation saves as many or even people than it endangers, but the point is that it’s arguable, and that well versed experts have weighed in on the issues and illuminated problems. (cont’d…)

          • elmondohummus

            … cont’d:
            I’m not anti-automation. Please don’t make it out as though I am. Rather, I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who’s looked at crashes such as the 1994 Airbus A330 demonstration run, Flight 447, and the like and have listened to the criticisms voiced by those in the aeronautics industry regarding such systems. That’s the perspective I’m posting from. Not some Luddite one. It’s unfair to characterize my post as wanting a return to DaVinci’s glider. That’s not what I was getting at.

          • Thomas L. Nielsen

            My point was that modern aircraft can’t do anything without Magic Black Boxes (TM). They can’t fly and they sure as Hades can’t fight.

            The pilot of a modern (military) aircraft is not in “ultimate control” of the aircraft. She doesn’t tell the plane how to fly – she tells the flight control system how she wants the plane to fly, and the Magic Black Box in the flight control system makes the plane do it.

            I agree with your point that this may cause some cross-training issues, since not all Magic Black Boxes “react” the same way. However, there are cross-training issues whenever a pilot switches from one aircraft type to another.


    • Briton

      “Magic” can be used tin British English to mean “great”, so the Harrier pilot said the F-35 was great.

  • Pilgrimman

    This kind of story makes me smile. It’s great to hear that people appreciate the engineering efforts that go into something like this. And Black Owl can **** off.

    • BlackOwl18E

      That was not me that wrote that. I was going to point out that those exact things on the F-35 that are so great can easily be added to the Super Hornet.

  • Pilgrimman

    Put on your tinfoil hat already. “OMG someone has a positive opinion of something I don’t like! PAID CORPORATE SHILL!!!!!”

    • BlackOwl18E

      Okay, I am now going to use this account when I comment here so people know it’s really me.

  • Nick

    I’m with you. If they insist on making planes easier to fly, they should at least integrate an advanced sudoku game into the HUD to keep pilots sharp.

    • bobby

      The pilots still have to maneuver the damn jet. They still have to be sharp with fighting tactics. They still have to pull the trigger. They make the decisions, is that not what it takes when in combat. Is it not the bigger, more advanced stick that wins? The designers only make it less stressful on the pilot so that the pilot can think and act quicker, thus, ensuring the survival of not only the pilot but the jet, which is their investment.

  • STemplar

    The only thing magical about the F35 is how it is making more and more money disappear with an IOC that is hidden behind a curtain at some point in the future.

  • Chet Steddman

    Yea because monitoring more gauges and instruments is really going to burn those calories…these new aircraft are designed so that the pilot can focus more on the mission and what’s going on around them and less on numerous gauges and instruments…new technology does this sort of thing…but hey maybe we should go back to using muskets, the longer reload process should really add to the fitness of the troops…

  • Bob

    And what happens with those fancy displays and Christmas Tree lights go on the blink?

    Let me guess, the turbine outlet temperature gauge is somewhere down around the pilot’s left ankle. He will be so heads down trying to find it he will inevitably lose SA and get his ass-waxed by some guy in a revamped Mig-21 who was able to close his six after that 4-gen IR missile that blew up on a proximity fuse dusted the bus that transfers power for the display.

    Anyone want to start running the cost vs. benefit ratio on that one?

    Technology is great. I work in IT. However, its not so great when it breaks and is unusable. I’d be a wee bit uncomfortable being dependent on so much electronics. I can run redundant control runs, but I cannot pack redundant displays.

    • aquazulu

      Why not pack redundant displays. One more button push should allow sleeping display to wake up.

      • ghostwhowalksnz

        They do have redundant displays, each display usually has a MTBF which exceeds the life of the airframe. What you have to watch is the software which takes the info and then tells the plane what to do.
        Why practically every new little Cessna has a digital display, but the rest is left up to the pilot like allways. ( plus a colour GPS helps a lot)

    • BOB


    • Hotdog

      You pull the face curtain and eject than you get to join the Martin Baker Club

    • Sherman89

      The F-18 is dependent on a computer, so is the F-35 any different?

  • spidennis

    test, to see if my comments will post?

    • Nick

      Nope, didn’t work.

  • blight_

    In any case, it’s a counter response to simply packing a ****pit with more dials and gauges than a pilot can monitor.

    Edit: Damn you deftech, but hopefully you guys can make the appropriate substitutions.

    There are two solutions: Reduce the number of gauges and sensory input only to the bare minimum (lights instead of gauges and more automation). Add more gauges. Or make aircraft more simple and obviate more inputs in the first place.

  • jamesb

    I’m sure the drivers are telling the truth…..

    Flying the thing ain’t gonna be like the CV-22….

    But I just have this thought…..


  • coolhand77

    Though the article doesn’t say it, I would opine that the green/yellow/red displays on a glass c-pit are probably better than your standard car “idiot lights” on the dash board. For instance, you have battle damage, but so far your engine is still cool enough, the gauge is “minimized” as a green light. Engine temp spikes into the yellow, the gauge itself pops up, IN YELLOW to get your attention, so you arn’t constantly monitering it. It spikes into the red, you get a red gauge, and maybe a flashing light, and its actually showing you time to max temp/ estimated time till turbine failure. Hell, they put this kind of stuff in vidiot games these days, why not put that kind of functionality in a glass c-pit fly by wire aircraft?

  • 4FingerOfBouron

    Are you 12?

  • Black Owl

    This is the REAL Black Owl. Although I am flattered that someone thought I was worth impersonating. I will most likely change my name since there is now an imposter on the site. Just look at the writing and see if you can recognize it as me.

    • Vaporhead

      Do you have split personalities? ;-)

      • Black Owl

        I really didn’t even want to comment on this article and some one took over my name and tried to make me sound like a retard. I would never say that. I was considering pointing out the fact that Boeing has easily proved that giving a glass cockpit to the Super Hornet as well as all the other goodies that pilots like about the F-35. That was about it.

    • blight_

      Just get an intensedebate account.

      • Black Owl

        How do I get one of those?

        • blight_

          Or you can use one of many other forms of identification, instead of the “guest” mode that anyone can spoof.

          • blight_

            Such as wordpress or OpenID. I wouldn’t ever /dream/ of connecting my twitter of facebook to my postings out here on the internet. Even on Facebook, I use a secondary “page” to do my posts.

          • BlackOwl18E

            Loving it!

  • Uncle Bill

    A quote from
    America’s Deadliest Sniper
    Navy Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle

    His favorite engagement distance? “The closer the better,” he said, because sniping is not a marksmanship challenge, it’s a deadly job of shooting as many enemy personnel as possible.”

    I think our goal with the F-35 is making the deadly job easier, and nothing more.

    • aerodog79

      GSGT Hathcock, tho’ I agree with the rest of your post.

      • blight_

        The guy with the longest shot is now a Canadian, though Carlos /started/ things in the beginning with an M2 reconfigured as a sniping platform. Modern snipers with purpose-built weapons lack his handicaps.

        • TMB

          A British sniper beat the Canadian a couple years ago, and with a .338 Lapua.

          • blight_


            Still miles away from what Carlos had to work with.

      • UAVgeek

        Actually it’s confirmed Chris Kyle has something like 160+ Kills to his credit. He’s America’s most prolific, one-bullet-at-a-time killer.

        • blight_

          Hath’s numbers were beaten by a mysterious Army sniper of which very little is known about in RVN. However, Carlos was more famous.

  • Uncle Bill

    What up administrator? My comments don’t break your rules.

  • Sanem

    ok, so this thing flies itself. then why does it even need a pilot?

    here’s a hint, don’t spend $150+ million on an aircraft that is ment to go into combat, that’s what UAVs are for

    also the greatest comput in the world isn’t going to help much when you’ve fired all 4 missiles and are dogfighting with 5th Gen Sukhois that outnumber you 3 to 1

    • Pilgrimman

      Have you ever heard of the concept of “delay”? That’s something you can’t afford in combat.

      • coolhand77

        I’ve always said that the best use of a UCAV would be to slave it to a two seater like an F15E and have the back seater run the drone ops. That way you can limit the range needed by the uplink, and two 15 become a full flight of bomb trucks. While the 15 pilot focuses on air threats or surface to air threats, the back seater can direct drones to take out targets, or even act as sacrificial “armor” [the drone is always going to be cheaper to replace than the manned fighter and the personnell aboard.
        Just food for thought.

        • blight_

          Realistically, the best way to do it may be to use a converted civilian jet as a mothership. Or something like the DC-130, which could control four Firebees.

  • ncb1010

    Then the enemy jams your communication system and your entire fleet of combat aircraft crashes. Opps.

  • sirius

    this machine is quite amazing when you read its stats. anytime you have a new platform with fresh innovation, there are bound to be critics. people don’t like change, but sometimes it is needed for innovation purposes. from what can be gathered, most of the criticism comes from certain design details that are counter to the norm, possible leaks due to computer hackers, and the pricetag … overall, this thing is pretty futuristic…

  • Eye1

    A – B – C
    A= Always
    B= Be
    C= Closing

    Since this aircraft’s “glass cockpit” can’t be complete until they get a working helmet mounted HUD, I guess that they really mean that flying the aircraft is easy as long as you don’t need to complete a combat mission.

  • Belesari

    But they still cost flyaway
    A 160 mil
    B 220 mil
    C 190mil

    Yea they fucking better fly like magic….to bad the thousands of aircraft they want wont ever be bought which makes each one more expensive…

    • tiger

      If your in the RAF or FAA you would be more than happy to get a new ride.

  • crazy

    For all the griping that takes place here about the F-35 it’s too bad there’s so little appreciation for something good.

  • Kooch

    I liked my grandmas old hang me down New Yorker until I got a Grand National…

  • tiger

    Ok, break out the slik scarfs & leather jackets for those Prime pilots hanging on Pancho’s wall…… Today’s guys can still move a stick & rudder & not make a hole at Edwards……

  • Euroman

    Our Typhoons/Gripens still blow the f-35 out of the skies. Even the f-22 was outmatched by our jets. Operation Red Flag anyone? You Americans make everything so expensive and now our stupid governments, already in a tardfull of debt, press on with this incontrovertible deal. I rather have the su-35 or pak-50 than this flying lard.

    • ghostwhowalksnz

      too silly for words, and Im not the F22s biggest fan!

    • William C.

      Right… this is the reason the F-22 has hundreds of simulated kills compared to a handful of simulated losses.

      The Typhoon is only now getting a full set of capabilities, Gripen isn’t much more than an F-20 in delta-wing form.

      • tee

        The Gripen NG will fly rings around your F-35. First off the Gripen NG can land and take off from an 800 meter stretch of road, can Super Cruise at Mach 1.2, and more importantly you can buy 5 Gripens for the price of a F-35B, or 3 for the price of the F-35A. That is why the Dutch Parliament just voted last Thursday to cancel the F-35 and I quote ” cost of ending the country’s Tier 2 participation in the program could hit EUR 1 billion. Then again, if reported figures regarding Saab’s JAS-39E/F Gripen offer are true, Dutch government budgets could still come out ahead. Industry may be less happy.”

        • STemplar

          Symbolic vote with no meaning. Politics.

    • Praetorian

      Germans took thier Eurofighters to red flag :

      Seems like the Germans, that went up against the F-22 , had a different account of what happened as compared with the American pilots.

      • STemplar

        A different account of a staged fight where they are automatically within visual range.

      • Finn McMissile

        Weren’t the Raptors restricted by SecDef to prevent pilots from becoming disoriented mid-flight?

      • blight_

        The only problem with exercises is that both sides aren’t trying their damndest to kill each other. They are trying to win, sure, but exercises usually have a number of experimental conditions that constrain “free play”.

    • Woody

      What are you smoking?….there is nothing you Euros have that can match ANYTHING the US has…..your planes are 2nd rate compared to US designs, its been that why since the F-86 Super Sabre, and now once the 35 and the 22 gets the last of the nagging little “bugs” out of it, the two US fighters will dominate for easily the next 30 years….just be glad your on our side….ok?…

  • iamwillcummings

    gotta say, no matter what anyone thinks or wants, tech is going to someday replace most human senses, especially common. whether this is good or bad will float from one scenario to another. the cost is always gonna be scary, thats literally the price you pay for the next big thing. the best things we can all hope for is good engineering and quality handiwork- equipment cant fail if its built the best way possible!!
    on a personal note- im loving the new tech..side by side comparison of chinook and osprey anyone??

  • Jacob

    Considering what Stuxnet did to Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, do we really want computer software running so much of an expensive combat aircraft?

    • ghostwhowalksnz

      Easy , you dont connect it to the internet. Seriously even a basic washing machine is run by software. There is no other way

    • blight_

      Verify your firmware works on day one and never change it. Write it to read-only media if you are paranoid.

  • Ems

    it’ good to hear the pilots are happy. I’m sure it will be the most advanced swiss army knife aircraft when it is operational..and yeah it can’t do everything/mission well.. but ya can’t have everything..

  • B Bradly

    can he do a 180 so I can see?

  • Simon hansen

    Who cares about the dependancy on electronics – if there is ever a major war we will all need to train pilots fast, this caters for that

  • charles

    Hmmmm – I dunno, didn’t or wasnt there a bunch of hoopla, and lots of positive praises for the Raptor? And now all we hear about is the excessive cost & how they are a maintenance nightmare?

  • Patriot Dreamer

    Less focus on what plane is doing allows more focus on what the enemy is doing! Redundant software & systems give considerable confidence in systems. Remember, both Voyager spacecraft have been working since 1967,

  • A/2c

    USAF, B/A

    Euroman, why not go back to your belove spites, sp, and leave the real planes to your “SONS”, USAIRMEN……………


    The first generation AV8 pilots thought similar things about the AV8B when compared to the AV8A. The AV8A was truly a fly by the seat of the pants aircraft as used by the Marines. If you took your hand off the stick for even a moment, you were in trouble. You had to really fly it and fly it every split second. Many of the many, and for those who remember, many early AV8A crashes were caused as much by pilots getting behind the plane as anything else. Imagine being a student AV8A pilot when first trained before the Marines had trainers (or simulators) and US pilots no longer when to England. Those who went through VMAT-203 before they had the two seat trainers , well, the first time they got in a harrier was the first time they got in a harrier. —-
    So, when I read the high praise that is given to the 35 I revel in the leap forward each generation takes. Imagine how the first aviators would view our planes in the jet age let alone the computer age. Imagine what the first Naval and Marine aviators would think of any of these planes. ——
    Now, in this age of aircraft that fly themselves, I wonder how we keep essential skills and the split second decision making skills that are necessary. We live in an age where our defense and government computer systems suffer millions of attacks in one day; where a Chinese, North Korean, Iranian or other hacker can do more damage in one hour than an entire battalion can do in a week. And consequently, we live in an age where potentially, a hacker can temporarily damage or disable our automated air, land and sea systems. —–
    I hope I’m wrong but even more I hope we have the basic skills to survive the fight when and if that day comes. I still think calculators and lap tops are terrific, but I also think knowing how to write and solve problems without them is important.

    • Hotdog

      The early AV8 were called “Widow Makers” for good reason. The first mistake the Marines made was taking pilots from the fixed wing pipeline when they should have been Helio pilots. The only thing that changed the future performance was the computerized flight controls, this made the plane easier to fly, or more pilot friendly.

  • All the marginal students in my flight training class got F-16s for this same reason: they’re supposedly idiot-proof. Until the CPUs go tits-up, that is. The delicate electronics also fail their BIT tests half the time before even getting off the ramp. Don’t know if that should be a blessing or a curse.

    • ghostwhowalksnz

      Electronics have been a big feature of every combat plane since the early 50s. Valves were the big thing then. And yes they had failures then too, at much higher rates. And then there was the mechanical and hydraulic systems to go wrong as well…

  • Woody

    I dont care what it costs or what it takes, GET THE F-35 AND THE F-22 INTO THE AIR. The US needs Muslim killers that are stealthy and plus I am thinking the Chinese are going to need to have their noses bloodied for trying to bully the Philippines out of their own islands…..

    • blight_

      “The US needs Muslim killers that are stealthy”

      Lockmart approves your message. Whatever it takes to get another aircraft out the door. Its okay, it’s a Muslim Killer, mmkay?

    • tiger

      Oh boy…….. Folks Chill.
      Darth Vader & the Empire are not building a Death Star in Hong Kong.

  • Johnny rebel

    I wonder how many of these planes ever gonna get of the ground.they have taken so long to make it off the drawing board,that several of the contries that was gonna by it has bailed out.Japan,norway and England are the only one left that’s still wanna put money into that black hole.Last i’ve heard canada bailed out adn went back to their F18.
    Not to mention the F22 that was supose to be the figther of the 20th centruy,which are now all grounded due to problems with oxygen flow,that has costa few pilot their lifes

    • tiger

      The F-22’s are back in service.