EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — As the Air Force races to declare its F-35 jets operational before the end of the year, observers are still warning about schedule delays, a faulty logistics system, and software glitches.
But here at Edwards, the pilots, maintainers and technicians of the F-35 integrated test force say they are happy with the plane — in fact, in many ways the joint strike fighter is a huge improvement over legacy systems.
'The Burger King jet'
Lt. Col. Raja Chari said the biggest difference between the F-35 and flying legacy platforms is that the pilot, freed from basic "stick and rudder" tasks by the JSF's automation, is able to focus on mission planning.
"Each plane is its own command and control platform," said Chari, who began his career flying F-15s and is now director of the F-35 ITF and commander of the 461st flight test squadron. "You don't have to do as much stick and rudder, just getting to and from, because there are so many automated modes to use on the F-35 ... [It] is almost as easy as breathing."
Maj. Raven LeClair, assistant director of operations for the 461st flight test squadron, told Defense News May 4 he likes the F-35's touch screen display, which each pilot can customize to his or her liking.
The "glass," as pilots call it, looks like two iPads sitting next to each other. Pilots can divide the screens any way they want in order to easily see different systems, Chari said.
Pilots can easily change the display anytime just by scrolling through these "portals" using the "hands-on throttle and stick," or HOTAS, he added.
"It's the Burger King jet," Chari said. "You can have it however you want, your way."
Pilots are also happy with the jet's high angle of attack, or AOA, capability, as well as its ability to perform high alpha maneuvers, Chari said. As airmen gain more experience flying the JSF, they are learning some "tricks of the trade" for handling a close-in fight, he added. He declined to be more specific because the information is classified.
Chari is looking forward to the integration of the AIM 9X missile, which will come as part of the final 3F software package. The combination of the F-35 airframe, the AIM 9X and the Gen III helmet is "a dogfighting game-changer," he said.
Maintainers weigh in on ALIS
Officials say ongoing challenges with the F-35's Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS, is the single biggest obstacle to declaring the Air Force jets operational on time. An internal diagnostic system that tracks each part of each plane worldwide, ALIS has been the subject of frequent criticism over the years, including the recent claim that if a single server goes dark it could cripple the entire F-35 fleet.
But maintainers here say that claim is ludicrous. Even if the power goes out, the team can still use ALIS, said RJ Vernon, supervisor for AF-3. All of the jet's information is stored in a device called a portable maintenance aid, or PMA, which the team can load to the main ALIS data base once the power comes back on.
"We've had that happen multiple times, and we can still use ALIS," Vernon told Defense News. If the power is out for long enough, the team may have to track maintenance and manage daily operations manually, as legacy systems do. But the chances of that happening are very slim, he added.
"We could teach you in 15 minutes," he told Defense News.
Technicians say F-35 is easier to maintain
Unlike many legacy planes, the F-35 is built with access panels to allow technicians to more easily make adjustments. This makes changing out parts "a whole lot faster," said Tech. Sgt. Chard Wooldridge, an avionics technician.
"For example, instead of taking off the entire nose assembly, it's just a compartment," Wooldridge said.
Plus, the computer catches problems the human eye might miss, Wooldridge said.
The computer is especially critical for fixing surface damage to the jet's stealth coating. Technicians first trace the damage on the plane, then use the computer to zoom in on that specific part of the aircraft, said Staff Sgt. Jason Noyes, a low-observables technician.
The jet's weapons are also easier to maintain than those on legacy platforms, said Master Sgt. Jason Buffell, the weapons section lead. The F-35's weapons delivery is "pneumatic," which means it fires projectiles by means of air pressure, instead of explosive. This saves man hours because the team doesn't have to spend time cleaning the weapons banks every day, Buffell said.
Patters put it simply: "Our jobs are drastically easier because of the way the jet takes care of itself."