By lex, on May 18th, 2011
A milblog associate coordinated a visit for me to the Sandy Eggo presence of Cobham, a defense contractor supporting Lockheed Martin’s F-35 project, amongst other things. There was to be a media event, Congressmen Duncan Hunter would show, and would I mind sitting in the F-35 cockpit demonstrator, at all?
Got to the media event a little late on an uncharacteristically cold and rainy day, having taken an early lunch from the paying gig. Went to the wrong building at first, where the security apparatchick gazed at me with suspicion bordering on hostility: Who are you with, I amn’t, I mean Nep…. I’m a freelance journalist I finally stammered out, not adding that I was, as yet, unpaid for such vocation. You’re in the wrong spot, she said through narrowed eyes, and happy to see the back of me told me that it’s Building 2 I was looking for, just around the way, thank you.
When I got to the proper building a Nice Young Lady asked if I was Lex, which I gratefully confessed to being, come right this way your man said you’d be a little late and the presser was already in progress, sit right down in front.
Dirt Callaghan preceded me by some ten years through the halls of the (prestigious) Navy Fighter Weapons School and now does business development I gather for the F-35 in Warshington. He was speaking to the assembled throng of Actual Journalists, complete with their pens and pads. Behind Dirt a series of plasma screen displays showed videos of the F-35 testing, tanking, taking off and landing. The walls behind me were surrounded by vaguely anxious looking support staffs of the two companies, and I settled in to listen.
I missed his opening preamble, but Dirt was hitting his stride, admitting that yes, there had been some program delays in 2010 but that the testing of the F-35 series was coming along nicely in 2011 and knocking out testing points: Four test aircraft each had been delivered to Edwards AFB and Patuxent River, MD, the former receiving the USAF’s F-35A variant and the latter the USMC F-35B. Two Navy F-35C aircraft had just landed at PAX, and were ready to begin testing. The B-model was clicking right along, having already completed 93 vertical landings this year as against nine last year and the aircraft would soon be ready for shipboard testing. All is well, and all is well, and all manner of things will be well.
One of only two truly fifth generation aircraft in existence, and more flexible than the F-22. And jobs. There are 1300 sub-contractors supporting the program in 47 states, whose direct or indirect support amounts to some 120,000 well paying job and isn’t that a relief in today’s economy?
The audience listened politely, but no one took any real notes that I could see. Everyone was waiting for their opportunity to clamber in the cockpit demonstrator and give her a whirl, while being filmed by their support crews for the ten o’clock news. I was given a two gig memory stick not quite the length of my pinky chock full of videos and background information, and solemnly assured that it was all cleared for public release, never to fret.
The cockpit demonstrator is a pretty cool piece of kit, compact, transportable and containing three separate visual screens but no helmet mounted display. I got to look over the shoulder of the Channel 10 news crew’s cameraman at the flat panel cockpit display that makes obsolete the really quite nice for their time digital data indicators that I’d grown up with in the Hornet. Touch screen, readily reconfigurable with all sorts of tactile select and zoom options if the 12 HOTAS buttons on the throttle (!) and 10 on the side-stick (!) couldn’t do it for you. The widescreen HUD was readily familiar, and the panel displays sensible: From left to right there was a stores management page, a sensor page with notional friendly weapons engagement zones overlaying the multi-spectrum, multi-sensor tactical air-to-air and air-to-ground picture, a narrow field of view FLIR display and the F-35 DAS, a Northrop Grumman contribution to the program which provides 360 degree electro-optical coverage and is pretty nifty, kids these days and what will they think of next?
Your turn will come, the Nice Young Lady assured me, we’ll just get the cameras through first, it’s nothing, I don’t mind but of course I was eager to giver her a go, the simulator I mean.
I witnessed a journalist fly an altogether straightforward air-to-air engagement, coached by a really quite capable guy whose job it appears to be to coach journalists through air-to-air engagements although perhaps there’s more to it, he used to fly Phantoms with the Guard so I hope that there is. The next journalist was tall and handsome man with immaculately coiffed hair and perfect teeth who despite the heroic efforts of the Phormer Phantom Phlyer made an equally perfect hash out of delivering a GBU-31 on a tank even as a pair of MiG-29s shot past him, and we can’t all be good at everything, it’s all a part of God’s plan, and you must grow where you are planted. I thought to myself that maybe there’s something to this whole 5th generation strike fighter music, for he didn’t pay for ignoring the Fulcrums with his (simulated) life, or perhaps that was just the way the demonstrator is set up.
A system based on the demonstrator could make a very adequate deployable mission trainer, as the guy whose job it is to sell deployable mission trainers to the Navy and Marine Corps readily agreed, praising me as it were for my perspicacity. You could network two of them for mission rehearsal in a milvan that would have to be equipped as a SCIF, for there are more highly classified capabilities in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy, and certainly more than would be displayed to mere journalists, the horror.
In a typical example of blue/green coordination, the Navy wants to bolt the things into the hangar bay, while the Marines want to take their DMTs ashore, the better to practice tactical development with when they aren’t eating, pumping iron or killing people. Bad people, it should be stressed, no better friend, and so on.
In a more pleasing display of blue/green comity, you’ll remember that Our Beloved Corps has gracefully acceded to the acquisition of some quantities of the Navy’s C-variant, the better to go aboard Actual Aircraft Carriers in support of the Tactical Air Integration initiative rather than lumpen amphibious ships playing pretend. Do it, England, or Navy will decrement your inventory objective and add it to our own, and how will you like us then? With the seal on a non-STOVL Marine variant broken, Congress in a budget slashing fever and with the ongoing technical challenges facing the program, it is better to ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for B.
Is my humble.
All of the Actual Journalists having cleared baffles, it was at last your host’s chance to jump in the box and wring her out, the cockpit demonstrator again, for those who have lost the plot and you’re a dirty boy, Danny. I chose a carrier launch (natch), plugged her into full grunt off the cat, pulled the wheels up and executed exactly the kind of aileron roll in front of the ship that Tom Cruise would perform in the movie Top Gun, but which would have cost me my wings in better days. Fortunately for me I am, 1) retired and, b) the demonstrator was not equipped with an air boss.
The roll rate was about like I remember the Hornet’s, and the vertical performance fully loaded with fuel was better. No drop tanks of course, nor any other external racks to add drag and radar signature. The throttle has a long horizontal throw, longer than I remember in the FA-18 and it’s probably summat to do with the nozzle mechanization of the STOVL variant, whose auto-hover features had been explored by a predecessor. The sidestick controller was roughly analogous to the one I had flown in the F-16N, but larger – it would have to be with 10 HOTAS buttons – and had a greater freedom-of-movement envelope, perhaps an inch or so of free play to the quarter inch of the F-16. It is of course still a force sensor rather than the position sensor used in the Hornet, and you just put the nose/wings where you want them to be without the need to null your control inputs once you’re in your desired attitude, which takes a little getting used to. All three variants have adopted the pickle switch for both air-to-air and air-to-ground ordnance release, with the trigger being reserved for the gun (if you have one) or the laser. I guess Navy lost that fight.
I had wanted to do a full-on strike fighter mission; navigate to the target, bag a few MiGs, deliver my ordnance precisely and come back to the ship for an OK-3 wire, a slider and a nap – kissing the girl would have to wait.
Instead, finding myself at 15,000 feet above the carrier, I decided to do a supersonic fly-by – again, no air boss – break to downwind and land. The cameras were rolling behind me as I lined myself up pretty nicely abeam the ship, did my standard FA-18 turn to final and overshot horribly, looking like nothing so much as a running dog on a wet linoleum floor the shame and dishonor of it and I’ll be having that video tape or this gets ugly. Managed to wrestle her back to the groove, whereupon I went red ball low, flew through up in the middle and planted her into the four wire (I think) with the ball at the top of the lens, hauling back aft on the stick to plant the hook just for good measure, and it’s amazing how it all comes back to you.
The wave-off lights are apparently not incorporated in the cockpit demonstrator. Probably has to do with the lack of an air boss, because you can have one without the other, but not the other way around.