The Ultimate Fighter?
With the F-35, Lockheed Martin takes a turn trying to make one combat plane that can do everything.
- By Richard Whittle
- Air & Space magazine, February 2012
Andy Wolfe/Lockheed Martin
(Page 4 of 5)
The fourth-generation F-16, also built by Lockheed, has a cockpit cluttered with an array of multi-function displays, gauges, and more than 100 switches. A major task for its pilot is to simply absorb and react to—“fuse,” in pilot parlance—the blast of information all those screens and dials produce. The pilot must do this while manipulating dozens of switches to tell the sensors what data to provide next…while frequently looking at the head-up display projected on the windscreen to read numbers and symbols conveying vital information, such as altitude, airspeed, and the location of enemy aircraft…while often turning his head to look up, to the sides, and, to the limited extent possible, behind his airplane…while occasionally talking on one or more radios…while streaking through the sky at hundreds of miles an hour using both hands and both feet to control the aircraft…often while wearing night-vision goggles to fly in darkness.
It keeps a pilot busy.
The F-35 cockpit, designed by a team of ex-military aviators led by former Air Force F-16 pilot Mike Skaff, Lockheed’s chief pilot-vehicle interface engineer, is streamlined. “It’s the most naked cockpit we’ve ever built,” says slender, sharp-featured Skaff, who grins as he shows off his team’s creation.
Its dominant feature is the fighter-jet equivalent of a home theater high-definition TV—two 8- by 10-inch screens, nestled together to form an expansive 8- by 20-inch display that spans the cockpit console. The big screen works something like a smart phone. By touching it with a gloved finger, or by using a button on the airplane’s control stick to move a cursor, or in some cases by simply speaking a command, the pilot can call up and organize flight or mission data, drop bombs, fire missiles, or share information with friendly air or ground forces.
Eric Branyan, who led the Lockheed team developing F-35 mission systems before becoming deputy program manager, sums it up this way: “We take all these sensors, put it on an 8-by-20 piece of glass, and put a God’s-eye view in front of that pilot that says ‘Here’s where all the good guys and the bad guys are. Help the good guys, shoot the bad guys.’ ”
Also important is what the cockpit lacks. There aren’t many switches—only about 25 on the console—and there’s no HUD beneath the canopy. HUD information is shown on the inside of the pilot’s helmet visor, an innovation that lets the flier keep track of life-and-death data no matter which way he turns his head. The helmet itself, built by U.S.-Israeli joint venture Vision Systems International in Silicon Valley, is another fifth-generation wonder. Attached to the airplane by a sapling-size cable, the helmet holds two small projectors just above the pilot’s forehead. Besides HUD data, the devices can project onto the pilot’s visor infrared video images gathered by six other cameras embedded in the skin of the airplane at strategic locations. Quilted together to create a single, 360-degree image, the pictures from this Distributed Aperture System, or DAS (pronounced “dass”), give an F-35 pilot the science fiction capability to scan the sky in any direction—even through the bottom of the airplane. “It’s a lot like flying Wonder Woman’s glass airplane when I use that,” Skaff jokes.
The helmet is still a work in progress. Under some aerodynamic conditions, the display on the pilot’s visor can still get so jittery as to be unreadable, and the imagery the DAS provides isn’t yet up to the standards the government requires for night vision goggles. The DAS imagery also suffers “latency,” or millisecond delays in getting what the cameras see to the visor.
The F-35’s flight control computers, which currently have 8.7 million lines of software code, do most of the flying. When they get flight commands from the pilot, the commands come through a control stick located on the right side of the cockpit and a throttle located on the left, both called “inceptors” because they operate electronically instead of mechanically. Rather than focus on managing sensors or handling the airplane, Skaff says, the F-35 pilot can concentrate on being a combat tactician.