When US Navy and Marine F-35 Pilots Most Need Performance, the Aircraft Becomes Erratic

“Fleet pilots agreed it is very difficult to max perform the aircraft”

The U.S. Navy’s and Marine Corps’ F-35s become unpredictable to handle when executing the kind of extreme maneuvers a pilot would use in a dogfight or while avoiding a missile, according to documents exclusively obtained by Defense News.

Specifically, the Marine short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variant and the Navy’s carrier-launched version become difficult to control when the aircraft is operating above a 20-degree angle of attack, which is the angle created by the oncoming air and the leading edge of the wing.

Pilots reported the aircraft experiencing unpredictable changes in pitch, as well as erratic yaw and rolling motions. The documents identify the issue as a category 1 deficiency and define it as something that limits the aircraft’s performance in such a way that it can’t accomplish its “primary or alternate mission(s).” In this scale, category 1 represents the most serious type of deficiency.

A Lockheed Martin executive told Defense News in a statement that he expects the issue to be resolved or downgraded soon as a result of software fixes.

“We’ve implemented an update to the flight control system that is planned for integration in the third quarter of this year — and we expect this item to be resolved or downgraded,” said Greg Ulmer, Lockheed Martin vice president and general manager of the company’s F-35 program.

The Pentagon’s F-35 program office did not respond to written questions from Defense News by press time, despite repeated follow-ups over a period of months.

In a deficiency report from the fleet, aviators said the issue “will cause modal confusion, prevent precise lift vector control, and prevent repeatable air-to-air combat techniques, resulting in mid-air collisions during training, controlled flight into terrain, and aircraft loss during combat engagements with adversary aircraft and missiles,” according to the documents.

“Fleet pilots agreed it is very difficult to max perform the aircraft” in those circumstances, the document notes.

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as well as the United Kingdom have noted the deficiency as a leading priority.

The fleet will, in the near term, mitigate the issue by enforcing minimum separation rules between aircraft in flight, the documents said.

‘That ain’t working’

A retired Navy fighter pilot who reviewed the documents for Defense News said the ability to maneuver the aircraft above a 20-degree angle of attack is important if the aircraft needs to quickly maneuver to avoid a missile or during aerial combat with another aircraft.

“You’re telling me that the latest, greatest, $100 million aircraft can’t perform?” the aviator said.

The issue, if left unresolved, would dovetail in the worst way when combined with another issue reported by Defense News: At extremely high altitudes, the Navy and Marine Corps versions of the F-35 can only fly at supersonic speeds for short bursts of time without risking structural damage and loss of its stealth capability, a problem that may make it impossible for the Navy’s F-35C to conduct supersonic intercepts.

“It has random oscillations, pitch and yaw issues above [its] 20-[degree angle of attack],” the aviator said. “[So] if I had to perform the aircraft — if I had to maneuver to defeat a missile, maneuver to fight another aircraft, the plane could have issues moving. And if I turn around aggressively and get away from these guys and use the afterburner, [the horizontal tail and tail boom] start to melt or have issues.”

The issue with control above 20-degrees AOA gets to one of the main debates about the aircraft: What if it needed to get into a dogfight? The F-35 is supposed to detect and kill its prey at range with missiles — either its own or from another platform in the network. But history has taught naval aviation that ignoring the possibility of close combat with another aircraft can prove deadly.

“This was not designed as a [traditional] fighter,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired naval flight officer and analyst with Telemus Group. “This was meant to fight at distance with missiles. If you got in close, if you had to go to guns, that ain’t working.”

In a statement addressing a broad range of issues reported exclusively by Defense News, Ulmer, the Lockheed executive, defended the performance of the jet.

“The F-35s today are meeting or exceeding performance specifications and delivering unprecedented capability and safety compared to legacy fighter aircraft. These issues are important to address, and each is well understood, resolved or on a path to resolution,” Ulmer said. “We’ve worked collaboratively with our customers and we are fully confident in the F-35’s performance and the solutions in place to address each of the items identified.”

An active-duty naval aviator who reviewed the documents for Defense News said the issues are reflective of an aircraft that packed in a lot of new technology, adding that, historically, all new jets have had problems.

“That document looks like growing pains for an aircraft that we tried to do a whole lot to all at once,” the aviator said. “You’re going to see that if you dig back at what Super Hornets looked like for the first few years. Go back in the archives and look at Tomcat — think about that with the variable sweep-wing geometry, the AWG-9 Radar.

“There was a lot of new technology incorporated into the aircraft, and there are always going to be growing pains.”

Source: Defense News

  1. Fox says

    The F-117 (Wobbly Goblin) can not fly at all without the aid of its flight control computer. Tweaking the F-35 is not a surprise. It appears to be a remarkable plane for what it was intended to do. DATA transfer between other F-35’s is unmatched, silently setting up a good kill.

  2. BillA says

    the RF and China should be most pleased with the cost/benefit ratio of the F-35

    1. blakebrown says

      The J-20 apparently costs $100-$120 million each and there are less than 30 of them in “active service”. On the other hand the F35 keeps getting cheaper to pump out, with over 400 delivered and approx. 190 will be delivered annually beginning 2020. It has started showing just how capable it truly is now that it’s been involved in real world operations, while Chinese pilots have barely seen a real sortie, let alone in the J-20. The Su-57 is covered in rivets and non-stealth angles and a design that does nearly nothing to hide it’s engines heat signature..theres only a handful flying as well. It’s hard to complain about the F35 when it’s the only of the 3 that isn’t trying to figure out how to build a reliable engine for it still and is actively being used in dangerous sorties (Israel flew over Iran completely unnoticed)

  3. Steve says

    Big difference between growing pains and birth defects…

    1. blakebrown says

      Yet all the apparent ‘birth defects’ from the past have turned out to have just had been growing pains that were overcome, and people are now finally beginning to see just how capable this jet truly is. Like the article said, the AOA issue will be overcome with flight control software. So far this thing has done a fantastic job of shutting down the haters as the program has ramped up

      1. Steve says

        Unsurprisingly you completely missed the point. Shocking no one…

  4. Jesus says

    F35 versions when deployed in combat will be dead meat trying to intercept and interdict Russian and Chinese generation 4 ++ aircraft.
    Advanced electronic warfare and platform capabilities of the F35 are as embellished as its performance capabilities.

    1. blakebrown says

      The F-35 is not an interceptor, so you’ve just outed yourself as having no clue what you’re talking about. The F-15 and F-22 are used as US interceptors. You must not have seen the F-35s recent air show performances neither if you are saying performance was embellished; If anything people were drastically underrating it’s performance..nobody thought it would be a great dog fighter but people have been very very impressed with what it was able to do this year at air shows now that all flight restrictions are off. And don’t tell me about China – they have next to ZERO combat experience, can’t figure out how to build their own engines, and simply copy everything.

      1. Jesus says

        The F35 according to your own words is not a great dog fighter, cannot fly at supersonic speeds for long, carries a few missiles internally, capable of max of one sortie or two a week, …..so US is procuring close to 2000 such useless aircraft to enrich the MIC.

  5. Undecider says

    Two thoughts:
    1) I can make turd smell like a flower with.. software?
    2) Never mind boastful talk of war. The U.S. simply don’t have the tools. Unless, it’s going to be all particle beams.

  6. CHUCKMAN says

    A truly remarkableachievement.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.