Bachmann: The Harrier is the most demanding airplane to fly, by far. It requires the most care and feeding. The biggest difference is that the Harrier has a center stick. The F-35 is like the F-16, with a side stick that doesn’t move much. We’re talking about fractions of an inch. A center stick pilot pulls aft, and muscle memory says, “That’s about three Gs, four Gs.” A side stick is opposite: The force with which I hold onto that stick causes the airplane to change its flight path. So it’s stick displacement versus stick force.
Another difference is that the Harrier has two levers on the throttle and your hand is always going back and forth [in hover]; the big one is the throttle, and the little one is for the nozzles, and any combination of those—and there are an infinite number—gives you the performance you want. Your left hand has to be very smart. If you’ve been to an airshow, [you may have] seen a Harrier come in at, say, 60 knots. If I want to speed up to 100 knots, I have to push the throttle forward to add power, then work the lever to change the nozzle angles, then push the control stick forward, or pull back, to get my nose up or down.
But in the F-35, the airplane does the thinking for you. If you want to go forward in hover, you just push the throttle forward and the airplane goes forward.
A&S: What else about the cockpit is different than the Harrier’s?
Bachmann: The Harrier’s cockpit, for its era, was superior. They did so much good work in that cockpit that makes it effective. It has great visibility, too. But the F-35’s is innovative, more than any other plane you’ll ever fly. It doesn’t have a lot of buttons. It’s clean and smooth. Everything is interfaced through two laptop-size screens in front of you that let you access menus and change settings. There’ll only be one screen in the end, about the size of two laptop screens joined side by side.
Not only are we developing a fifth-generation fighter, but one that’s easy to maintain. Think about when you go around to the back of a new rental car now, like I just did today. The trunk’s just an electrical switch. It’s more reliable. The F-35 will be more reliable, which means maintainers will spend less time working on the airplane and more time training for something else, or carrying a gun.
A&S: What was your very first impression as you headed down the runway in the F-35A compared to a conventional takeoff in the Harrier?
Bachmann: What you notice most is that the F-35 has a big honking engine. Big as an SUV. But in a Harrier, the engine runs a lot higher before you release the brakes, about 65 percent of military power [full power without afterburners]. So the Harrier has a very quick engine response when you slam the throttle forward to mil power. The F-35 starts at a lower throttle setting, about 30 percent of mil power, and then you slam the throttle. But the acceleration’s rapid. You look down long enough to check engine instruments, and you look up and your speed has doubled.
A&S: Will your reactions be used to make any changes?
Bachmann: Of course. Everyone wants that feedback. That’s why they want me flying the plane. They want my point of view. I’ll write actions for engineers and pilots, who hopefully will come up with changes for each and every model.
A&S: What are you looking for when you make test flights at this point?
Bachmann: Initially, we’ll talk about hover pit tests, the interaction between STOVL effectors and the jet, and make sure it’s acting as predicted. A smart engineer designed it to work properly. But that feeling might give the pilot some uneasiness. I need to present any problem to the engineers so that it gets fixed now.
A&S: What’s the trickiest or most challenging part of flying the F-35?