Going out to taxi the airplane may not sound challenging, especially given the caliber of pilots we selected for initial training. We added taxi familiarization to the syllabus to give students a chance to sit in the aircraft when they were not under pressure to fly. They are strapped in, the engine is running, and for the first time, they get to experience the real thing. In the simulator, the student “sees” the airplane. It doesn’t rumble or vibrate; the computer-generated sounds are realistic but not quite true. When the student puts on his flight gear, straps into the cockpit, starts the engine, and begins to creep forward, it’s a real thrill.
The F-35 is a digital airplane: There are no gauges, dials, or analog displays. The throttle and stick enable the pilot to fly, and, because both are loaded with buttons and switches to control sensors, weapons and target selection, communications, and autopilot, among other things, we’ve given the control interface a name: Hands on Throttle and Stick, or HOTAS. The pilot also uses a large touch-screen display that takes up almost the entire front panel in the cockpit. The pilot can configure the display with up to 14 windows of information, and one touch of the quick-access menu bar can open another 10 windows displaying aircraft systems. Remember, the student had repeated exposure to these interfaces both in the classroom and in the simulator.
The F-35 is in its seventh year of flight test and still has a few more years to go. We are buying and fielding F-35s while the aircraft is still in development, so until testing is complete, we fly the operational aircraft with limitations on speed, angle of attack, how many Gs we can pull, and the use of certain systems and sensors.
This approach to military aircraft procurement, known as concurrency, is controversial. Why would anyone start training with an airplane that was only partially capable? Because we are building understanding, familiarity, and compatibility. Center stick pilots need to become side stick pilots. Push button and analog pilots need to become touch screen and digital pilots. Head-up-display pilots need to become helmet-mounted-display pilots. Fourth generation pilots need to become fifth generation pilots. We’re still learning what the F-35 can do, and we need people who know the airplane and can continue to drive it to its ultimate performance.
Colonel Art Tomassetti retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in August after 27 years of service and 3,200 hours in 40 types of aircraft. He served two tours as an AV-8B pilot, including combat missions in Operation Desert Storm.