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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Latest in the F-35's Maneuverability Saga

Image 1: Lockheed Martin F-35 (Image Credit: Lockheed Martin)

Author's Note: To all my fellow forever alone aviation enthusiasts, I'd like to wish you a happy Singles Awareness Day (S.A.D)! Despite my busy work schedule I decided it was necessary to post today. Hope it helps, enjoy.

The F-35 program has been subject to constant scrutiny by its detractors. A popular issue F-35 critics love to hate is the ongoing performance issues related to the F-35's maneuverability. Lockheed Martin test pilot Billy Flynn recently struck back against critics with his own assessment of the jet's maneuverability related capabilities. In Flynn's view, the F-35 demonstrates comparable to superior levels of maneuverability performance when compared to advanced 4th generation fighter designs like the Eurofighter and Super Hornet. Flynn is an extremely experienced test pilot who has flown nearly every prominent western fighter aircraft, including the Eurofighter Typhoon and F-22 Raptor. After Flynn expressed his views, other fighter  pilots expressed their skepticism of the F-35's performance. The following image is taken from Defense Industry Daily (who has 100% ownership of the image). The illustration maps the exchange between Flynn and other pilots.

Image 2: All credit and ownership to Defense Industry Daily

  The disparity between Flynn's claims and the views of other fighter pilots makes it difficult to ascertain the F-35's aggregate level of maneuverability performance. Given the assessment of the most ardent F-35 critics, one could believe the F-35 is less maneuverable than a fully loaded C-5M Super Galaxy (sarcasm). As I've explained before, maneuverability is not determined by a single aerodynamic characteristic or statistic. Rather, determining an aircraft's maneuverability involves comparing its: wing loading, sustained turn ability, g limit tolerance, thrust to weight ratio, rate of climb, angle of attack limitations, acceleration performance, etc. to other aircraft.  It is always preferable to test these metrics in real world situations rather than to debate with only paper statistics in a purely academic manner.

To summarize the findings of my Canada and the F-35 article, the F-35 has some decent to good maneuverability characteristics. For example, due to the use of internal weapon bays, the F-35's performance characteristics are not significantly altered when it caries a full load of air to air missiles. Traditional fighter aircraft will experience a hit in performance once weapons are equipped due to the increase in drag (bear in mind the F-35's air to air load is less than a fully laden F/A-18E or Eurofighter Typhoon). It is important not to overstate the degree in which the F-35 is maneuverable. It was designed from its inception to feature less maneuverability than the more expensive F-22 due to both the emphasis on price and ground attack performance. In terms of aggregate maneuverability performance, the F-35 is generally less maneuverable than the most competent 4.5 generation aircraft e.g. Eurofighter Typhoon. The F-35's lower maneuverability does not make the F-35 incompetent in air to air combat situations when other factors such as off-boresight IR missiles, HMD, DAS, etc. are all accounted for. Flight Global's Dave Majumdar does a good job describing how F-35 pilots will compensate for the aircraft's weakness during engagements against more maneuverable opponents.

"Pilots will have to make extensive use of the F-35's stealth characteristics and sensors to compensate for performance areas where the jet has weaknesses, sources familiar with the aircraft say. But engagement zones and maneuvering ranges will most likely be driven even further out against the most dangerous surface-to-air threats. In an air-to-air engagement, for example, tactics would have to be developed to emphasize stealth and beyond visual range (BVR) combat. If a visual range engagement is unavoidable, every effort would have to be taken to enter the 'merge' from a position of advantage, which should be possible, given the F-35's stealth characteristics. Once engaged within visual range, given the F-35's limitations and relative strengths, turning should be minimized in favor of using the jet's Northrop Grumman AAQ-37 distributed aperture system of infrared cameras, helmet-mounted display and high off-boresight missiles to engage the enemy aircraft. If a turning fight is unavoidable, the F-35 has good instantaneous turn performance and good high angle of attack (50°AOA limit) performance comparable to a Boeing F/A-18 Hornet, which means a similar strategy could be adopted if one finds him or herself in such a situation."  

The only way Lockheed Martin and F-35 critics will definitively know the extent of the F-35's dog fighting abilities is to stage a series simulated exercises. Such an exercises should include a mix of 4th, 4.5, and 5th generation opponents. I doubt even basic fighter maneuvering engagement type tests would be possible before Block 2A software is incorporated into the F-35 fleet. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the results of an initial dogfight would be released to the public. Eventually, I would expect the F-35 to participate in Red Flag training exercises when it enters service. My prediction is the F-35 pilots will initially get their collective rear ends handed to them by veteran U.S aggressor pilots. Eventually, the F-35 pilots will learn to capitalize on all the strengths of their aircraft and out preform most of their rivals (except the F-22). Competent F-35 pilots will likely be able to engage and consistently defeat 4.5 generation opponents but they will experience higher casualty rates than Raptor pilots.

Related American Innovation Blog Content (links provided):

Canada and the F-35
Red Flag 2012: Did the Raptor Seriously Get Owned?
The Future of 4th Generation Aircraft in the 21st Century
F-35 Maneuverability Woes
Murphy's Law at Work: F-35 Development and Performance Concerns




  1. Cool article. Another post asked what size? This is perfect

    1. Thanks. I'll try and keep future articles around this length. I should also be able to post more frequently given the shorter size. I'll just post links if its a multi-part article.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Just because the limit is an AoA of 50 degrees, it does not mean, that the F-35 is able to reach them.

    1. Test have taken the F-35 to the test limit of 50 degrees already without incident.