Editor’s Note: Keep these questions coming, FighterSweep Fans! This is one of the advantages of having a pool of contributors who also happen to be still in the seat, be it on active duty, air national guard, or reserve components. It brings a ton of credibility to their work and thankfully for you (and us!) they enjoy sharing their expertise and experiences. We’ve got a lot more to follow, so keep it up and thanks for engaging and remembering to ask good questions!

Hello Fightersweep!

I just barely came across this article concerning the F-35 during BFM and found it really interesting, especially concerning the report and claims that it was junk in the dogfight arena. I for one am rooting for the F-35 and looking forward to their arrival here in Vermont.

I’ve read a lot of history books and know this is hardly the first aircraft to have such growing pains; and have little doubt it will turn out as bad as most people say. But people do love to rag on the new kid! I would like to know what you guys make of the article and the F-35’s performance.

From what I know of BFM and fighters (which is very little) it sounds a lot like a Hornet. I believe C.W. Mentioned that same thing in his report after the claims of deficiency. What caught my attention was the discussion of being able to recover energy quickly after bleeding it at high AoA. To me this pilot’s experience makes it sound like a good combination of both the Hornet’s AoA and the Viper’s ability to transition quickly from maneuver to maneuver. At times the flying he describes is eerily reminiscent of Col. John Boyd’s favorite maneuver in the Hun; but, I really want to hear more from someone who has more knowledge than me!

I appreciate any insights!


Ask a Fighter Pilot: Dogfighting in the F-35!
34th Fighter Squadron Commander Lt. Col. George Watkins banks right past the control tower at Hill AFB, UT September 17 after the first sorties with the recently acquired, combat-coded F-35As. He was conducting mission qualification training, focusing on weapons employment, range familiarization and missionsystem proficiency. (U.S. Air Force photo/Alex R. Lloyd)

This is a great question to ask! Thank you for bringing this article to my attention, and hot off the presses, no less! What I’ve been saying all along about the F-35 is that it’s FAR too soon to be making definitive statements like “WORST FIGHTER EVER!” As the article points out, the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) for this aircraft are still in the development phase. Really smart guys are still working to figure out ways to best employ this aircraft tactically. That doesn’t happen overnight.

So,I applaud you for turning to actual fighter pilots instead of Wookie-necked hipsters to get your information. Even though he speaks in this weird “Metric system” vernacular, I will take the word of a Norwegian guy who has actually flown the jet over someone that has never put on a G-suit in his life.

Ok, with that rant out of the way, let’s address your actual question: what does this article tell us?

Well, as GM pointed out, a dogfight boils down to RATE vs RADIUS. You can think of the two as ENERGY vs NOSE POSITION. The rate fighter uses his energy advantage to turn more quickly (measured in degrees per second) while the radius fighter uses his nose position advantage to make a smaller circle (measured in feet).

There are a lot of “cheats” that designers will use to make a fighter good at both. These include Leading Edge Flaps that extend based on airspeed, Leading Edge Extensions that help with low speed control, and thrust vectoring. This is why fighters like the Viper, Hornet, and Raptor do so well in both types of fights.

Ask a Fighter Pilot: Dogfighting in the F-35!
A Boeing F/A-18F from VFA-154 gets airborne from Nellis Air Force Base during an exercise. The Super Hornet is a very agile, nasty dogfighter in capable hands, given its slow-speed, high-Alpha capability and tight turning radius. (Photo by Jason Hyatt)

Angle of Attack (AoA, or Alpha) is mostly referred to in the slow speed, radius-fight environment. A fighter that can fly with high angles of attack (that angle between the relative wind and the chord line of the wing) can “point their nose” more easily. It’s what makes a Hornet so scary to fight. They’re still flying and in control while other aircraft stall and fall out of the sky.

What the Viper and F-35 have that the Hornet doesn’t is power. Yes, the Viper is AoA limited, but that also means it’s never “not flying,” and has the ability to power its way out of just about any situation. This is what’s meant by transitioning from maneuver to maneuver.

The Hornet might be able to cash in, pointing the nose at 50 knots and 60 Alpha, but that’s it. You’re along for the ride at that point. When it gets slow, it’s very hard to get that energy back.

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A Viper, on the other hand, can regain that energy through thrust. Coming off the limiter slightly, especially at low altitude where the big inlet and GE motor do their best work, can mean getting back to a fighting airspeed and energy state. This is especially useful if there are multiple bandits – you don’t want to finish a fight and be a sitting duck.

If the reports are accurate, that means that the F-35 is a good compromise between the two. It has the ability to point its nose where the Viper couldn’t, while not getting itself into an unrecoverable energy state like the Hornet. That’s good news.

At the end of the day, though, I still say don’t chase the reports–and continue to ask informed questions. As the F-35 gains more ground in its testing, there will be more reports coming out – some good and some bad. We won’t really know what it’s truly capable of until we see it in the hands of Johnny Wingman who just finished his initial Mission Qualification Training. That’s where the realistic operational capabilities will be found as he employs the aircraft exactly as he’s been trained, having never been in any other jet.

(Featured photo courtesy of Breaking Defense)