WASHINGTON – For the first time since a controversial report detailing how the F-35 performs in a dogfight emerged last summer, an F-35 pilot gave an in-depth analysis of his experience flying the jet in a close-range battle scenario.
Norwegian Air Force Maj. Morten “Dolby” Hanche, the first Norwegian to fly the F-35, analyzed the jet’s performance in a dogfight in a March 1 blog post published on Norway’s Ministry of Defense website.
Although Hanche never mentions the 2015 report, “F-35A High Angle of Attack Operational Maneuvers" and revealed last summer by blogger David Axe on WarisBoring.com, he counters many of the anonymous author’s claims.
The 2015 report criticized the F-35’s lack of power and maneuverability compared to the F-16 during high angle of attack exercises. The F-35 “was at a distinct energy disadvantage in a turning fight,” the author wrote, also noting that “pitch rates were too slow to prosecute or deny weapons.”
In contrast, Hanche wrote the F-35 is capable of a significantly higher angle of attack than the F-16, providing the pilot greater authority to point the nose of the airplane wherever he wants.
“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,” wrote Hanche, a US Navy test pilot school graduate with 2,200 flight hours in Lockheed Martin’s F-16.
Hanche now serves as an instructor and the assistant weapons officer with the 62nd fighter squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.
In the defensive role, the pilot can “whip” the F-35 around while simultaneously slowing down, Hanche wrote. The plane can actually slow down more quickly than a driver is able to emergency brake a car.
At its maximum angle of attack, the F-35 reacts more quickly to the pilot’s “pedal inputs,” which command the nose of the plane from side to side, than does the F-16, according to Hanche.
“This gives me an alternate way of pointing the airplane where I need it to, in order to threaten an opponent,” Hanche wrote. “This ‘pedal turn’ yields an impressive turn rate, even at low airspeeds. In a defensive situation, the ‘pedal turn’ provides me the ability to rapidly neutralize a situation, or perhaps even reverse the roles entirely.”
Hanche did have several critiques of the F-35’s performance, including a shaking or “buffeting” at high g-loadings and high angles of attack. In comparison, the F-16 hardly shakes at all, he noted. This buffeting has made it difficult for several F-35 pilots to read the information displayed on the heads-up display. However, Hanche has not found this to be an issue while using the third-generation helmet.
Both Hanche and the anonymous author of the 2015 report agreed the headrest makes it more difficult to see behind the aircraft. Hanche wrote he found initially the F-35’s cockpit limited his visibility compared with the F-16.
“The cockpit view from the F-16 was good, better than in any other fighter I have flown. I could turn around and look at the opposite wingtip; turn to the right, look over the back of the airplane and see the left wingtip,” Hanche wrote. “That´s not quite possible in the F-35, because the headrest blocks some of the view.”
But Hanche was able to improve his visibility by moving forward in his seat and leaning slightly sideways, before turning his head and looking backwards. This enabled him to see around the sides of the seat.
Hanche stressed that he was still able to maintain visual contact with his opponent during aggressive maneuvering, and the cockpit’s visual limitation is not “a genuine problem with the F-35.”
"For now my conclusion is that this is an airplane that allows me to be more forward and aggressive than I could ever be in an F-16," Hanche wrote. "So how does the F-35 behave in a dogfight? ... To sum it up, my experience so far is that the F-35 makes it easier for me to maintain the offensive role, and it provides me more opportunities to effectively employ weapons at my opponent."