The F-35's manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, brought a flight simulator to the University of Utah's Kennecott Building earlier this month, and let me take a turn in the "cockpit." After almost two years of writing about the F-35, I was looking forward to experiencing the jet's features.
Even though the F-35 has yet to fire a missile or drop a bomb in combat, the aircraft has already acquired some infamy. It is being called the first trillion-dollar weapons system because of the design, construction and long-term maintenance costs. I was disappointed to find out that Lockheed didn't bring with the simulator one of the F-35's single-most expensive pieces of equipment: the $400,000 helmet.
The helmet is designed to display for the pilot the six outboard cameras that provide a 360-degree view of the battlefield, plus control displays. Technical information about the helmet is classified.
But the Lockheed simulator mimicked the effect of the helmet by displaying information on a series of screens in front of me. The cockpit was open and did not move.
Eric Best, a retired Air Force colonel and F-16 pilot whose call sign was "PJ," gave me instructions and helped me manipulate the controls. Best helped me take off from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. When the two enemy aircraft appeared on my radar, Best told me not to worry. The aircraft had been detected at long range and didn't know the F-35 was there.
The F-35 is designed to evade radar and is sometimes referred to as a "stealth" jet. That's why it has so many corners and flat surfaces. It also boasts skin made to minimize radar detection and electronics that Lockheed and the defense department say can jam or confuse radars.
Best helped me ready missiles and gave the order to shoot. I was 71 miles away when I fired the missiles and their contrails zoomed out from under my aircraft.
The capability to detect and destroy targets at long distances could impact Utah. In October of last year, Chris Robinson, director of operations for the Utah Test and Training Range, told residents in the West Desert community of Partoun that the Air Force wanted to expand the training range so F-35 pilots can test the aircrafts' missiles.
But locking onto an enemy target and firing could also make the F-35 vulnerable, according to the Project on Government Oversight, which has published papers critical of the F-35. The project says that radars in practice and under development by the Russians and the Chinese would be able to detect the F-35's own use of radar to find the F-35.
Before my missiles hit their targets, I was detected. One of the enemies fired a missile at me. Best told me I had countermeasures. He didn't specify what those were, but fighters typically carry flares or decoys designed to send false signals and confuse a missile.
I didn't get a chance to use those. To speed up the simulation — students and faculty were waiting for their turn in the cockpit — Best hit a button and I had a new view of the Nevada desert.
Now my mission was to drop a bomb on a target on the surface. It wasn't specified what the target was supposed to be.
While the target was displayed on my screen, Best said it wasn't my aircraft that was detecting it. The information about the target was coming from an off-board source — maybe another manned aircraft, maybe a drone, maybe someone on the ground.
Information sharing is to be another important feature of the F-35. The aircraft is supposed to be transmitting and receiving data from sources nearby, as well as hundreds or thousands of miles away.
I was trying to maneuver my aircraft toward the target. When it came time to ready the weapons and prepare a bomb, I was so busy looking at the controls I didn't notice I was moving the control stick. My airplane started doing barrel rolls.
Best told me I could take my hand off the stick.
"The aircraft is designed to be really easy to fly," Best said, "because the pilot needs to focus on the displays."
With help from Best, I regained control, dropped a bomb and watched it guide itself — the bomb has a computer, wings and fins to guide it to the GPS coordinates of the target — to the ground.
After a less-than-impressive landing — I'm pretty sure I was short of the runway, but the simulator was forgiving — my flight ended.
The real thing is flying just up the interstate at Hill Air Force Base. Pilots there are learning to fly the aircraft and testing technology like the radar and stealth capabilities. It will be perhaps three more years before the Air Force's F-35s enter combat and try to do what I did in the simulator, and, certainly, do it better.