The Newest Fighters

In this post Cold War age, it might not have been politically correct, but Dick Collins sure enjoyed bagging himself a bunch of MiGs. And nobody even got hurt.

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When governments buy airplanes, they face many of the same constraints that we do. If it is a new airplane, it takes a long time to develop. And, the fewer engines the airplane has, the more affordable it can be. The next generation fighters, the F-22 and the F-35 (Joint Strike Fighter) are perfect examples of this. I learned something about both of these impressive new airplanes from the Lockheed Martin folks at the Fighter Demonstration Center in Arlington, Virginia. This was at the invitation of Sean Hanrahan, Lockheed Martin manager of NAVAIR programs. Sean was a Naval aviator for 22 years and is currently a keen general aviation pilot.

They have a demo cockpit of both airplanes that is not a full simulator but that has a wraparound visual and all the good stuff on the panel. And you can really fly them and simulate combat missions. I'll tell you up front that I bagged a bunch of MiGs and some tanks.

From a distance, there seems to be a lot of similarities between the two airplanes, but in the end they have entirely different personalities. They are both quite stealthy, which is a great advantage in a combat situation, both from the standpoint of other airplanes and surface-to-air missiles. The Pratt & Whitney engines, of which the F-22 has two and the F-35 has one, are from the same family. The systems and capabilities of the airplanes are similar, and because the F-35 is following the F-22 in development and deployment it will have the benefit of lessons learned while bringing the first and larger airplane on line.

The number one design criteria for the F-22 is performance. Number one for the F-35 is affordability. Maintainability is high on the list for both airplanes, and both promise significant savings over airplanes currently in the inventory. Both airplanes will carry enough munitions internally to make a lot of mischief. External stuff can also be carried, but this compromises the stealth properties of both airplanes. Both airplanes will carry more fuel and have greater range than the airplanes they will replace.

The F-22 is a long-range, high-altitude air superiority fighter with what they are calling supercruise ability. It'll do Mach 1.5 at 40,000 feet without the afterburner lit. The engines have 35,000 pounds of thrust and have thrust vectoring, which augments maneuverability. The thrust vectoring is automatic?the pilot just uses the control stick to make the airplane maneuver as desired. It'll do a lot, too, including angles of attack up to 60 degrees.

As with all new airplanes, the electronics are a big jump ahead of anything now in use. Multisensor integration puts information from different sources into one picture. It displays processed information, not data. There are not a lot of black boxes, either. Everything is basically in one box into which modules are plugged to perform the various functions.

Let's see how this works, first with a flight in the F-22.

The airplane is flown mainly by reference to the head-up display on the windshield. The combat solution is with reference to one of the screens on the panel, and targeting is done with a cursor. Just put the cursor over the bad guys to identify them for a firing solution. The advantage of stealth is that you can "see" (with the radar) them before they can see you. The head-up display shows the identified targets and the heading to which you need to turn to engage. The screen showed the range of their radar, and they were well within the range of my missiles before I was in range of their radar. Identify the individual targets with the cursor and feed them one missile each. Scratch four MiGs.

The approach and landing in the F-22 demonstrator is entirely conventional, with an approach speed of about 155 knots. Again, the head-up display is used to fly the approach.

The F-35 is actually three different airplanes. There's a version for the Air Force, a conventional airplane. The version for the Marine Corps has new-to-me terminology. It's a STOVL airplane(stoh-vul), for short takeoff, vertical landing. The Navy airplane, the carrier variant, has more wing area, 620 square feet as opposed to 460 square feet for the others. This reduces approach speed from 150 knots to 135 in honor of carrier landings. This will be the first single-engine combat jet operated off carriers by the Navy since the A-4 and A-7 were phased out some years ago. So, as with the choice made by so many civilian pilots, the affordability of a single has caused it to be chosen over a twin. As expected, there's at least a little grumbling in the ranks about this, especially among the younger pilots who will be around when the airplanes come aboard later in this decade and who have flown nothing but twins.

The F-35 follows the F-22 in development by a number of years. Where the F-22 has four primary big screens and a couple of smaller ones, in the current configuration the F-35 has one big screen and one smaller one. The demonstrator has a head-up display on the windshield; the plan is for a helmet-mounted display in the production airplane.

The F-35 simulated in the demonstrator is the Marine Corps version, the STVOL. A short takeoff was made?short means 450 feet according to the spec. Then we went out and dropped bombs on a couple of tanks and toasted some more MiGs.

Then it was a return for a vertical landing, which was easily possible because of the weight reduction caused by fuel burn and munitions used.

There are three configurations for the power. One is selected when you just want this version of the F-35 to be an airplane. The second is for transitioning to the vertical mode and the third is used as the airplane is brought into hovering flight. The transition begins at 180 knots on the deceleration; the hovering mode is selected at 100 knots. The point over which you want to hover is selected with a cursor, and all you have to do is fly the commands on the head-up display and select the proper power setting to bring the F-35 to a hover over the desired point. The throttle is then used to control the height of the hover. Pedal turns with the rudder will adjust the heading, and the stick can be used for lateral movement over the spot.

In the hover, the thrust from the tailpipe is deflected downward. A shaft-driven ducted fan right behind the cockpit generates an equal amount of thrust forward, and there are thrusters out on each wing for roll control. Yaw is controlled by the rear nozzle that will move 12 degrees right or left. The computer manages all this as you tell it what you want to do. Landing from a hover is a matter of reducing the power to get the desired rate of sink. Once it touches, power off does the trick. All that is how the cockpit demonstrator is now flown. As the program evolves, some things might change.

The F-35 has a sensor system that lets the pilot see (on the screen) anything around the airplane. It gives complete visibility in every direction.

While looking at these systems I couldn't help but compare them with our GPS navigational systems, such as the Garmin 530. You tell it what you want to do?fly a flight plan, for example?and it tells you what to do to fly that flight plan. Same principle in these next-generation fighter aircraft. Incidentally, when they have young folks aboard for a demonstration they figure it all out much more quickly than older folks do. Computer skills have become an important part of flying sophisticated airplanes. Also, you have but to operate one of these demonstrators to imagine that these airplanes will fly combat missions without live pilots at some time in their deployment.

They are not taking orders from civilians, but the F-22 is about $119 million a copy in 2002 dollars. There are eight of the airplanes now at Edwards AFB in test, and the airplane is in low-rate production. The current plan is for it to become operational in 2005, and from 295 to 339 airplanes are on the current order book-the exact amount to be determined by exactly how much they cost. The F-35 will be in the $40 to $45 million range with the conventional airplane the lowest cost, the STOVL version next, and the carrier airplane the most expensive. Apparently the complexity of the carrier airplane?things like folding wings?adds more to cost than does the complexity of the STOVL system. Two F-35s were built for the fly-off that resulted in the award of the contract. The first flight of a conforming aircraft will be in 2005, and first deliveries of the airplanes are planned for 2008. There's a potential for 6,000 F-35s worldwide (half for our services), and some allies are participating in the development program. If that number sounds like a lot of airplanes, 4,000 F-16s have been built and the production line is still active.