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26 June 2017

Flying the F-35B Lightning II: Pilots Take to the Skies with the UK's Newest Jet

As Station Commander of Royal Air Force Lossiemouth, Paul Godfrey, describes how the £73 million F-35B Lightning II fighter jet will form the centrepiece of the UK’s Royal Navy and RAF next year, an F35 interrupts him. It roars down the runway for just 90 metres before launching into the sky. Godfrey pauses for the spectacle. “If it's about to put on a show – it’s worth watching,” he says.

Godfrey, who by his own admission could talk about the jets all day long, trains the next generation of British fighter pilots for when 138 Lightning IIs go into servicein the summer of 2018.

At Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, he was there to see them in action. The US Air Force hosted a Tri-Lat exercise with the Royal Air Force and French Air Force in April - it was the first opportunity the three countries had to practise together with the fifth-generation jets. It also marked the re-signing of a formal agreement to continue cooperating in the future.

At the airbase, the three countries were given missions where they would work together against ‘enemy aircraft’, which gave them an opportunity to fine tune their capabilities and work off each other’s strengths.

For the F-35Bs, their well-documented strength is stealth, and alongside the UK’s multi-role combat Typhoons and the French Dassault Rafales, they can act as the eyes of the fight, hanging back from the front line and communicating the whereabouts of enemy fighters in the field.

As the Typhoons and the Rafales engage in combat, they can rely on the F35's to feed them information via radio and LINK-16 communication systems. “We [the Typhoons] go out the front and simulate taking shots at the enemy,” Godfrey told WIRED. “And some of them may stay alive because of manoeuvres they’ve performed.” When the pilots feel they are being dragged too far from their 'homeland' they turn around - known as going cold. The F-35, however, continues to transmit the location of other aircraft to the Typhoon cockpit, letting them know who they need to target when they "turn around hot," Godfrey says. “The F-35 has its own weapons system as well, so if anyone gets around us they can then go pick those guys off.”

The exercise met all of Godfrey's expectations. “Not a single one of those enemy airplanes crossed that line in the sky. It was the first time I’ve seen the planes integrate for real, and it was brilliant.”

At the airbase, the three countries were given missions where they would work together against ‘enemy aircraft’, which gave them an opportunity to fine tune their capabilities and work off each other’s strengths.

For the F-35Bs, their well-documented strength is stealth, and alongside the UK’s multi-role combat Typhoons and the French Dassault Rafales, they can act as the eyes of the fight, hanging back from the front line and communicating the whereabouts of enemy fighters in the field.

As the Typhoons and the Rafales engage in combat, they can rely on the F35's to feed them information via radio and LINK-16 communication systems. “We [the Typhoons] go out the front and simulate taking shots at the enemy,” Godfrey told WIRED. “And some of them may stay alive because of manoeuvres they’ve performed.” When the pilots feel they are being dragged too far from their 'homeland' they turn around - known as going cold. The F-35, however, continues to transmit the location of other aircraft to the Typhoon cockpit, letting them know who they need to target when they "turn around hot," Godfrey says. “The F-35 has its own weapons system as well, so if anyone gets around us they can then go pick those guys off.”

The exercise met all of Godfrey's expectations. “Not a single one of those enemy airplanes crossed that line in the sky. It was the first time I’ve seen the planes integrate for real, and it was brilliant.”

The pilots of both the Typhoon and the F-35B wear G-suits to mitigate the impact of pulling up to nine G-forces during flight. At that force, everything in your body becomes relatively heavier. Crucially, your blood becomes up to nine times heavier, making it more difficult for the heart to pump it around the body. The anti-G trousers plug into the airplane, inflating around the lower limbs and lower abdomen to prevent G-LOC - a G-induced loss of consciousness. “When we start pulling around a corner, the air inflates really tightly around your limbs and that forces the blood to maintain it in your brain so you don’t black out,” Lieutenant Godfrey says. Then there’s the life jacket, which helps if the pilot is forced to eject over the ocean, but also acts as a pressure vest that inflates around the chest so that as the oxygen mask force feeds air into the lungs, the pilot's blood pressure is still maintained.

The F-35B will also be getting an extra measure - an auto ground collision avoidance system. “The aircraft knows where it is in relation to the ground and it senses when the pilot is not responding,” Bashore says. “If the pilot is in a G-LO situation and they’re going to hit the ground, then it rolls the jet into level flight and it goes into auto-pilot mode until the pilot wakes up - even if the plane is going to travel out of its boundaries at least it's not going to hit the ground.”

Inevitably, a minor hazard of the highly-competitive job is to bat away Top Gun gags, even within their own ranks. As the Typhoon pilots make their way across the tarmac, a group of engineers follow behind playing the Top Gun theme song from their stereo. Their poking fun is almost justified - too many of them at first glance live up to the stereotype: good-looking, funny and friendly Tom Cruise lookalikes. Only taller.

As the jets race down the runway, Typhoon pilot and RAF flight lieutenant 'Hubbs' describes the feeling of sitting in the cockpit at Langley Airforce Base about to lift off. “You come through the training system and you can mentally prepare and rehearse as much as you like, but when you’re sat on the taxiway and in front of you is an F-35 and behind you is an F-22, [and your adversary is] taking off in numbers that you haven’t seen before - it's very surreal.”

Hubbs says even as a fourth generation jet, the Typhoons have a lot to bring to the table. “This jet is capable of regaining energy faster than pretty much anything else in the world,” he says, thanks to its two Rolls-Royce designed engines. “It gives us a huge advantage because we’re able to sustain our energy a lot better and if we bleed it in a defensive situation then we’re able to get back to fighting speed a lot quicker than most.”

Then there’s the £200,000 helmet, which has the same helmet-mounted sight of the F-35Bs but with an added capability. “The French and the US don’t have the ability at the moment to cue weapons from their helmet. That means they have to physically point their aircraft at another aircraft in order to shoot it, give or take a few degrees,” he says. “We don’t have to point at the aircraft, so imagine the aircraft fighting in a spiral. We can cue weapons from the helmet direct to targets that are away from the front of the aircraft.”

The F-35Bs, however, stand to give the RAF a unique edge. “We’re a tier one partner with the Americans so we’re getting the same aircraft, which allows us to work really closely with them,” Hubbs says. “It also allows us to modify our tactics and integrate fourth generation Typhoons with fifth generation F-35s, [providing] even more situational awareness in the battlespace. It's a truly unique capability that is arriving, actually.”