F-35 Air Demo Debut Highlighted Combat Maneuvering

Lockheed Martin infographic.

Le Bourget, France—Yes, it certainly looked (and sounded) impressive, but make no mistake: Monday’s F-35A air show flying debut was a demonstration of the fighter’s capabilities, not a series of aerobatic stunts. Lockheed Martin and Air Force officials were clearly proud of the fact that this week’s Paris Air Show flights are being flown by operational F-35s out of Hill AFB, Utah—jets that are ready to go to war. In fact, the aircraft flown Monday was one of the same Lightning IIs that had deployed to Europe this spring in the type’s first-ever overseas deployment.

Lt. Col. Scott Gunn, operational support squadron commander at Eglin AFB, Fla., and an F-35 instructor pilot, on June 20 quickly ran through the real-world significance of several of the demo’s maneuvers. The high power, rapid takeoff, for example, allows the aircraft to get into the air quickly, important for aircraft on alert or in any sort of emergency situation.

The demonstrated ability to stay up in a low-speed loop generates advantages against aircraft that cannot maintain their altitude at low airspeed, Gunn said. If an enemy falls away, the F-35’s pilot is in an advantageous position to shoot it down.

The F-35’s ability to fly at a high angle of attack (the difference between where the aircraft’s nose is pointed and the direction in which the jet is moving) is a big advantage. “I get to point my nose wherever I need to fight,” Gunn noted. The aircraft’s maneuverability also allows an F-35 pilot to get inside an enemy’s turning circle.

One segment of the routine involved a level pass at less than 100 knots with the F-35’s nose pitched up 50 degrees. Gunn said this move would allow an F-35 pilot to defeat an enemy who cannot simultaneously fly so slow and level. Less-capable fighters would blast past the F-35, leaving the Lightning II behind them and in position for the kill.

Gunn and Alan Norman, Lockheed’s chief test pilot, were repeatedly asked about the F-35’s dogfighting capabilities and limitations, given past reports that claimed the new strike fighter was not as capable as some legacy aircraft in short-range engagements. Both stayed positive, noting the F-35 is already highly capable and getting better all the time. For example, jets are currently limited to 7G turns with Block 3I mission software, but the next software block, which will begin rolling out in August, allows for 9G turns.

Gunn said, even today, an F-35 pilot can use stealth and unmatched situational awareness to defeat enemy fourth generation fighters beyond visual range, engaging enemies at a time and place of his choosing. The stealthy strike fighters racked up a 20-1 kill ratio at a Red Flag deployment this spring.

The F-35 is nearing the end of its System Design and Development phase that began way back in 2001. Over the next year or so, the final tests should be completed and the Block 3F software integrated.

Finally, although the Air Force has not yet identified the root cause of five unexplained, hypoxia-like physiological incidents affecting F-35s at Luke AFB, Ariz., Gunn said he had enough confidence in the jet that he had no qualms about making the ten-and-a-half hour flight over the Atlantic to bring the F-35 to the Paris Air Show.