What is good and bad about the F-35 cockpit: A ‘Panther’ pilot’s guide to modern cockpits

The F-35 helmet: does it show too much too small?

My background – Current F-35 pilot and Weapons School graduate. I Have flown the Harrier II and F/A-18 Hornet operationally as well as instructing Tactics and Weapons training squadrons.

I can’t speak with much first-hand credibility about the fighters of the 50s-70s, nor can I tell you much about any twin-seat fighter aircraft. Probably the oldest cockpit I have flown in as captain was the BAe Hawk T1A in the RAF. It was totally ‘steam driven’ with no digital instrumentation, but as an advanced trainer of its generation it had everything you needed. Someone once told me that the gun/bombsight was the same as used in the Hawker Hurricane – whilst that may not actually be true it was certainly of a similar vintage! By the ’90s it was definitely showing its age and the jump from Hawk T1 to any of the RAF’s frontline aircraft was (avionics wise) too much.
The T2 (Hawk Mk 128) was introduced sometime in the 00’s and was designed to mirror the Typhoon more or less exactly. It had three MFDs and a HUD and the radar simulator was pretty much an unclassified version of the Typhoon’s radar. We found that students stepping from the T2 to Typhoon were coping so much better than those who had flown just the T1.

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Harrier II (GR7/9 AV-8B)

I loved this cockpit, and to this day it remains my favourite ‘office’ of all I’ve flown. Plenty of space, a huge canopy with excellent visibility and reasonably well laid out instruments. It was a bit of a crossover between analogue and digital; it had a good HUD and two MFDs with the classic 20 pushbuttons around the outside. The Up Front Controller (UFC) was easy to use and well located, it made entering co-ordinates during CAS easy. Something that has been lost in all glass cockpits is the tactile feel of pressing buttons and knowing you got a response – I found you could enter Lat/Longs by feel whilst looking out the window. This is something you definitely can’t do ‘on the glass’ on current jets.
There was a lot of space taken up by the old analogue weapons control panel on the lower left, I’ve got to say I never used it other than to flick switches when I was bored on a long transit. The 6-pack of analogue flight instruments were purely there as a failsafe, although I have to say I loved the standby Attitude Indicator. It didn’t just tell you your attitude, but it also rotated and gave you a heading readout too – great for practice partial-panel approaches on your annual instrument rating checkride!
As for what made the jet unique, the nozzle lever. It was situated beside the throttle but was much smaller and of a different shape. We had it drilled into us during training that we had to be very sure which lever we were pulling in case we moved the wrong one. There was one crash during my time at an airshow on the South coast of England where the pilot moved the nozzles aft inadvertently when he should have moved the throttle to max. I will always remember the advice I was given by one of my instructors during the VSTOL phase of the Operational Conversion Unit – “if you move something in the cockpit and the jet does something scary – move it back!”

A Harrier GR.9 aircraft conducts a combat patrol over Afghanistan Dec. 12, 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon/Released)

The HOTAS was intuitive and fairly common with most F-teen series jets. I particularly liked the Throttle Designation Controller (TDC) being on the top of the throttle and operated by your thumb – all those years of practice on the Playstation controller paid off and made slewing the Sniper pod second nature!

McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A/C Hornet

Being a McDonnell-Douglas design I found this cockpit easy to convert to after the Harrier. It had an almost identical UFC and the same MFDs on the left and right, but this time with an additional larger MFD in the middle. It felt more cramped than the Harrier, certainly narrower but it was still well laid out.
Of course this jet had two engines for the first time in my career but I didn’t really notice a difference after a flight or two. It only got weird when you had one throttle off or at idle when dealing with an emergency; this was exacerbated if you had the right engine off and were flying on the left throttle as the push-to-talk switch was on the right throttle. It took a bit of dexterity at times to make sure you were pressing the correct switch.
The Hornet was a jet you could fly purely by feel, and indeed sound at times. The sound of the airflow over the LEX at high alpha was known as the ‘waterfall’. When flying BFM, if you were trying to out-rate your opponent you pulled back on the stick until it felt like the jet was driving over a cobblestone road. If you wanted to tighten the radius a little you would pull a little harder until you heard what sounds like ‘standing at the top of a waterfall’ – it’s obvious when you hear it! When you needed to pull someone into your HUD for a guns kill you would bury the stick into your guts until it sounded like you were standing ‘at the bottom of a waterfall’. Talking of stick movements, I have never experienced such violent and aggressive movements of a control stick in an aircraft before, you would literally pull or push it to the stops as fast and as hard as you could. Definitely a jet built to take abuse.

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Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

Obviously I’m limited in what I’m allowed to tell you about this machine, but I’ll stick to what is available in the public domain. First up, there’s no HUD as its all integrated into the helmet. The technology of the helmet is great, but I’d take a HUD any day. It all comes down to physics – you can only shrink things so much before they start to become degraded, and HUDs have bigger optics than helmets…currently.

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The side-stick is something I thought would be difficult to convert to, but in all honesty it was a non-event. The rest of the cockpit is beautiful to look at – nothing analogue, all digital with about 10 actual switches in the cockpit. Notice I say beautiful to look at, not necessarily beautiful to interact with! In theory the all-glass display is great. It’s touchscreen, you can set it up to show pretty much anything you want in any layout you want. Take, for example, a fuel display. You can have it in a large window that shows you everything you could possibly want to know about the aircraft’s fuel system; the contents of each tank, which pumps are operating, fuel temperature, centre of gravity etc. Or you can shrink it into a smaller window that only shows more basic info. Or you don’t even display it at all because the Function Access Buttons (FAB) along the top of the display always has a small fuel section with the essential info visible at all times. That’s the beauty of the display – size and customisation. The drawback is in the complete lack of tactile response. It can be challenging to press the correct ‘button’ on the display whenever the jet is in motion as it is quite a bumpy ride at times. At present I am pressing the wrong part of the screen about 20% of the time in flight due to either mis-identification, or more commonly by my finger getting jostled around in turbulence or under G. One of the biggest drawbacks is that you can’t brace your hand against anything whilst typing – think how much easier it is to type on a smartphone with your thumbs versus trying to stab at a virtual keyboard on a large tablet with just your index finger.

Voice input is another feature of the jet, but not one I have found to be useful. It may work well on the ground in a test rig, but under G in flight it’s not something I have found to work consistently enough to rely on. I haven’t met anyone who uses it.

An F-35B Lightning II assigned to the United Kingdom’s 617 Squadron taxis into position on the flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea on 23 September, 2020. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 “The Wake Island Avengers” joined the United Kingdom’s 617 Squadron “The Dambusters” onboard the 65,000-ton carrier as she sailed for exercises with NATO allies in the North Sea.

Having bashed the interface, the way this jet displays information to you is incredible. The sheer amount of situational awareness I gain from this aircraft and its displays is like nothing I’ve experienced before. The off-boresight helmet is much more accurate than legacy JHMCS systems and I find it clearer to read (although I still want a wide-angle HUD for flight and fight-critical data!). About the only thing missing from the whole cockpit is the lack of ‘feel’.

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  1. brian

    The tactile confirmation of an input, is something that was pretty basic in the original design of the iphone. Is there any consensus among f35 pilots that the current possibility of a non input of touch screens is close to a safety deficit, particularly in turbulent or manoeuvring flight?
    I wonder if a mechanical digit keyboard, like an old push button phone, on the left or right side arm rest, with a wrist pad was ever considered?

  2. Sam

    i’ve tried to learn more about the voice recognition system but haven’t found any resources — are you permitted to discuss what types of functions are under possible voice control? I found an older video talking about it that mentioned it was limited to navigation and communications functions, but that was about it.

    Thanks for the interesting blog post. car and aerospace manufacturers alike are running into issues after diving head first into the touch-screen revolution, i’m glad to hear someone come to the defense of interfaces that provide tactile feedback.

  3. AndrewZ

    There are a number of companies working on “haptic” screen technology which alters how areas of a screen feel to the touch to create the illusion of different textures, and mimic the sensation of manipulating physical controls. It’s very likely that this technology will eventually make its way into aircraft to restore the pilot’s ability to find the right controls by touch alone. However, instead of a fixed set of controls you will have “virtual” buttons that appear and disappear as needed, with haptic cues like specific shapes and textures to notify you of certain conditions or guide your fingers to the next step in a multi-stage process.

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  5. Olaf

    Voice commands hardly work wien using a damned phone in the city. Can’t imagine it working one something this “new” especially when those making the hardware probably weren’t doing this for a long time(voice commands). Not to mention that this is not a quiet and relaxed environment where it’s going to get used.

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