In part, because of an internal U.S. Air Force report that alleged the F-35 had difficulty outmaneuvering an F-16, the F-35 joint strike fighter has built a reputation that it isn’t effective within visual ranges. But on June 19 at the Paris Air Show, pilots said the upcoming flight demo this afternoon would dispel all notions that the jet can be handily beat by fourth generation fighters.
“I have seen those reports as well,” said Lt. Col. Scott “Cap” Gunn, an F-35 pilot at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Gunn flew one of the two F-35As on site from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to Le Bourget Airport, but the demonstrations this week will be flown by Lockheed test pilot Billie Flynn.
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When Gunn began flying the F-35 five years ago, the aircraft’s flight envelope was heavily restricted, with only 3Gs permitted. Back then, flying against an F-15C was an even match, he said. Three months ago, Gunn flew against an F-16 within visual range, and the F-35’s performance had improved so much that the other pilot believed the aircraft had undergone special modifications.
“They really haven’t done anything to it. The difference is, we’ve learned. We’ve learned how to fly to jet,” he said.
Could it win in a dogfight now? “Without a doubt,” he said.
Although showy aerobatic performances are typically seen as style over substance, Gunn explained in a briefing to reporters how maneuvers performed in today’s flight demonstrate critical combat capabilities.
The flight will begin with a maximum power takeoff that shows off the F135 engine made by Pratt & Whitney, which produces 40,000 pounds of thrust. Immediately after takeoff, the plane will climb upward almost completely vertically at a slow speed.
“In terms of combat relevance, getting to altitude helps with all our missions,” Gunn said. “It also can conserve fuel over time if you get higher altitude faster.”
From there, the pilot will perform a square loop, which shows the ability to make sharp turns at both very high and slow speeds and quickly reposition the nose of the aircraft, said Alan Norman, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 chief test pilot.
Then Flynn will demonstrate the aircraft’s high angle of attack, or the difference between the direction the jet is traveling and the positioning of the nose. The F-35’s high angle of attack amounts to more than 25 degrees, which slows the speed of the jet to less than 100 knots, said Norman.
Tactically, that’s a big advantage, because adversaries that can’t maintain that angle of attack will be forced to either descend or fly past the jet — both courses of action give the offensive edge to the F-35, said Gunn.
“Those who have seen Top Gun, and you see Maverick get slow and let the enemy fly on by. That’s kind of what that allows you to do,” he said.
After the slow speed pass, Flynn will perform a high alpha loop to a pedal turn, which rotates the jet back and forth, displaying that the pilot can easy point the nose of the plane in the opposite direction. Norman called the combination the F-35’s signature maneuver, as the F-22 is the only other U.S. aircraft that can do it.
“[It’s] probably the most relevant in terms of how to fly the aircraft,” Gunn said. “It shows you how the jet moves when it’s slow. Being fast is very good, or being slow is very good, and when you’re slow and no one else can fly the way that you’re flying, again it provides a whole lot of advantage.”
The show closes with a minimum radius turn, which — in the jet’s current 3i configuration — is only limited to 7Gs. Once the aircraft’s final 3f configuration is adopted, the aircraft will be able to fly its full envelope up to 9Gs, Norman said.