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NASA's F/A-18 (left) and X-31 are among the airplanes used to gather data for thrust-vectoring. (NASA Dryden Flight Research Center)

How Things Work: Thrust Vectoring

In a tight spot, you need zoom to maneuver.

Right now, the F-22A and the Russian Sukhoi Su-37 and Su-30MKI (flying with the Indian air force) are the only fighter aircraft with  two-dimensional thrust vectoring nozzles.

More sophisticated designs, which have yet to fly beyond the testing stage, feature nozzle flaps that can move 17 to 20 degrees in nearly any direction, resulting in maneuvers around both the pitch and yaw axes. Both major U.S. fighter engine makers, Pratt & Whitney and General Electric, tested multi-axis vectored nozzles about a decade ago for an Air Force demonstration program.

Until thrust vectoring becomes more widespread, few will enjoy that extra edge—and that’s just fine with U.S. pilots. “Thrust vectoring provides such a significant advantage in the visual maneuvering arena that I rarely find myself in a defensive position,” says Wagemann. “When we start defensive, for training, you are almost always able to transition to offensive without getting shot.”

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