The Ultimate Fighter?

With the F-35, Lockheed Martin takes a turn trying to make one combat plane that can do everything.

(Andy Wolfe/Lockheed Martin)
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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.

All that makes the F-35 far more than a mere bomb-dropper. But while the aircraft is called a “fighter,” carries air-to-air weapons, and is required by Pentagon specifications to have as much power and maneuverability as each type of aircraft the three variants are to replace, the F-35 isn’t meant to dogfight. Says Burbage: “If you ever get into the ‘phone booth,’ where you’re within visual range, turning to fight with somebody, you’ve screwed up pretty big time, because your sensors and your stealth allow you to stay completely out of that fight. When you’re en route to hit that strategic target and you have an air threat coming your way, you have enough advance warning—you can engage or avoid, depending on what’s required. If you do decide to engage, you can hit them long before they know you’re there.”

Stealthy as the F-35 will be in combat, though, the estimated cost of $382 billion for 2,443 aircraft and the facilities needed to care for them makes the JSF the ultimate target to those who think deep cuts in military spending are needed to defeat trillion-dollar federal deficits. A Quick Look Review by Pentagon experts late last year also made clear that, based on test results so far, all three variants are still experiencing significant growing pains. Much work remains to be done before the aircraft is ready to take on the job of everybody’s fighter. The review, though, found no showstoppers.

So, assuming no showstoppers turn up, will the F-35 be the Ultimate Fighter?

Dave Jeffreys, who as Lockheed’s principal systems engineer for improvements and derivatives spends a lot of time thinking about the future, says that when it goes into service, probably around 2016, “at that point in time, it will be the ultimate fighter.” The Russians and Chinese, however, have their own fifth-generation fighters in development—the T-50 and J-20, respectively.

Given the revolutionary pace at which unmanned aircraft have been developed over the past decade, is it conceivable the F-35 could be the “ultimate” fighter in the sense of “last,” as in “last manned fighter”? The writers of the movie Green Lantern clearly think so.

“Totally hokey,” sneers Lockheed test pilot Billie Flynn, immediate past president of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, as he watches a Green Lantern scene in which an F-35 takes on two bat-shaped Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles, or UCAVs, in a computer-generated dogfight. The UCAVs prove so relentless the hero has to lure them to an altitude at which all three airplanes suffer compressor stalls and lose engine power. “Couldn’t happen” in real life, Flynn explains, because the F-35’s engine would restart automatically. Next, as the UCAVs plummet to earth, the hero’s F-35 goes into a flat spin. “Couldn’t happen,” Flynn says again. Flight tests to prove it still lie ahead, but wind tunnel analysis and computer simulations say “there is no way that we can get this airplane into a spin of any kind. The flight control surfaces are far too effective to permit that to happen.” At the end of the scene, the hero survives. In real life, against politics and the global economic crisis, will the F-35?

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