America’s brand-new F-35 Lightning II is currently undergoing a series of tests over Fort Worth, Texas. The third flight on Wednesday tested the aircraft at 23,000 feet, the highest altitude the aircraft has ever been. And this week, Lockheed Martin’s chief test pilot Jon Beesley — the only man on the planet to have flown the F-35 — plans to take the jet even higher.
The F-35 is not the first fighter ever tested by Beesley, a 56-year-old former Air Force officer and grandfather of six. He also is the second man in the world to fly the Air Force’s latest air supremacy fighter, the F-22 Raptor (designed to replace the F-15 Eagle). And he was one of the first to fly the now aging F-117 Nighthawk (the world’s “first operational stealth aircraft”).
Like the Raptor and the Nighthawk, the F-35 is a stealth fighter. But it is the first-ever aircraft designed to replace four existing aircraft from three services. In full production, it will replace currently operational fighters like the Air Force’s F-16 Fighting Falcon and the “tank killing” A-10 Thunderbolt, the Navy and Marine Corps’ F-18 Hornet, and the Marines’ AV-8 Harrier “jump jet.”
On Wednesday afternoon, a few hours after testing the F-35, Beesley explained why the new nine-G, Mach 1.6 (just over 1,200 miles per hour) fighter is unlike anything ever flown.
“I’ve never felt any airplane that had better performance coming off the ground,” Beesley tells National Review Online. “I had a very good idea of how I would climb out, but [because the single Pratt and Whitney F135 engine generates more thrust than any fighter engine ever built] I had to keep pulling the nose up. I was thinking, ‘this is interesting.’”
MORE FIGHTING THAN FLYING In September, I talked with with Marine Lt. Col. Arthur “Turbo” Tomassetti. Tomassetti, who had flown the X-35 (the stripped-down experimental version of what would evolve into the current F-35) explained that, “Mission stuff — killing things and blowing things up — should be what is most challenging. You don’t need to complicate a pilot’s life by making the hardest part of his combat mission getting back aboard ship.”
According to Tomassetti, the fighter pilot needs to be more fighter than pilot.
That’s exactly what the F-35 is designed to do. The new F-35 Lightning II
“What people do best in airplanes is think,” says Beesley. “So you need to make the airplane very natural and intuitive to fly, and that’s what Turbo was talking about when he said turning the man into more of a fighter. The best fighting we do is with our minds, and we can do that more effectively if we are spending less time flying.”
He adds, “I grew up flying F-4s, and you had to spend a lot of time thinking about how to fly that airplane or it would bite you. That takes away time from what you need to be focusing on,” which of course is fighting.
Beesley first took the F-35 up on its maiden flight in mid-December. He tested her a second time on Monday, January 8, pushing her up to 20,000. Then on Wednesday morning, he took her 3,000 feet higher.
“We open the envelope a little more each time,” he says. “This morning, I went up high at almost point-eight mach, did some air data work, looked at the handling and stability qualities, did some other things and then came home.”
THREE IN ONE Several things make the F-35 unique.
First, it is being produced in three variants, which is why it will replace the four currently operational jets. The variants include:
•A CTOL (conventional takeoff-and-landing), for the Air Force. •A STOVL (short takeoff-vertical landing), for the Marine Corps. •A carrier takeoff-and-landing, for the Navy.
Second, because it is basically designed as a family of three warplanes — and 70-80 percent of each variant is common to the other two — it is said by Lockheed officials to be far more cost effective throughout the life of the program, about 30-plus years.
One jet in three versions means one assembly line instead of three.
Still, the jets aren’t cheap: About $45 million to $60 million per copy, with the CTOL fighter on the low end, and the more expensive models being the increased bells-and-whistles STOVL and carrier jets.
The third factor is performance.
“This is the plane that — because of its stealth — will be able to go in and kick down the door on the first day of a war,” says Beesley. “If you look at last three wars, the first wave aircraft were the stealthy airplanes. Now we are coming into an era where rather than 50 stealthy airplanes, like the F-117; commanders of the future might have 500 to 1,000 to choose from.”
KILLING MULTIPLE TARGETS In addition to stealth, speed, and maneuverability; the F-35 has increased range, and it carries a greater payload than the legacy fighters it is replacing (also a greater payload capability than the new F-22). It is able to simultaneously fight at least eight enemy planes, and, at the same time, lock-on to as many as 16 enemy ground targets. And it can track literally hundreds of targets for 360 degrees and at tracking distances that — though classified — far exceed the distances of the legacy jets.
The F-35 was officially christened the Lightning II last summer. The first Lightning was the old P-38 Lightning, also a Lockheed-built airplane, of World War II fame. That Lightning shot down more enemy planes (including the plane transporting Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto over the Solomons) than any other U.S. warplane in the Pacific theater.
Lockheed Martin plans to begin production of its F-35 later this year. Another 2,781 F-35’s are currently scheduled to be built over the next three decades. Most of those will be built for the U.S. and the United Kingdom (138 planned for the U.K.’s Royal Navy and Air Force). That number does not include airplanes for an additional seven partnering nations — Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Turkey — that have a vested interest in the F-35. If all partnering nations purchase F-35s, the number could increase to more than 4,500.
Beesley is slated to ride the Lightning II for a fourth time, Tuesday.
– A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military åissues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.