The Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 is the workhorse of the Royal Air Force’s air combat fleet, excelling in both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Starting life in 2003 as a dedicated interceptor, the fighter has matured into a well-equipped multi-role combat aircraft. We spoke to Wing Commander Mike Sutton about the Typhoon and his experiences of taking the aircraft to war.
What is the best and the worst thing about the Typhoon?
The Typhoon has very few vices. I was a tactics instructor on the Jaguar previously, and even though everyone loved flying it, if you weren’t careful it had a very nasty bite. Of the two hundred Jags the RAF procured, sixty-nine were lost in accidents. The Typhoon is a generational leap. The thrust alone is insane. At 500 knots at low level it will accelerate while sustaining 9g. It’s a genuine multi-role platform. I’ve done the most challenging air-to-air sorties during RED FLAG, operational close air support, live quick reaction alert scrambles and air combat against modern fighters. It excels across the board. The four-nation programme is a blessing and a curse. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the jet is the time it takes to get agreement from all the nations for development. But when everyone is on the same page, the combined expertise, industrial resource and multi-nation investment make it a powerful combination.
What was your role in developing new tactics and operating procedures for multi-role aircraft? What have you learnt about this?
I was lucky enough to be a weapons instructor on the first multi-role Typhoon Squadron as it formed. It was a hugely exciting time. There were experienced pilots from the Tornado F3, GR4, Harrier, Jags, Mirage 2000, F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 on the brand-new Force who all had extensive tactical experience. I needed an open mind as much as diplomacy and a thick skin, as a small team of us took the best ideas from everyone around and tried to forge a new way of operating. Out with the old and in with the new. Starting afresh also enabled us to throw away outdated ways of working and attitudes that had become entrenched over the years. We looked at it holistically – from how to brief and debrief, use of the simulators, best ways to teach and record tactical lessons, as well as how to fight the aircraft. It was an evolving process and as the months and years progressed we refined the tactics. New pilots had fresh ideas. You never stand still on a fighter squadron. As soon as you stop progressing, and you get complacent, you are in for a shock.
Is Typhoon’s mechanically scanning radar an issue when compared with more modern radars?
The CAPTOR has done a decent job, but the new AESA <due in service in the mid-20s> will be far better. Taking Beyond Visual Range missile shots is about far more than being able to see targets at long range on the radar. It’s about combat identification using all of the aircraft sensors – and fusing that data – as well as electronic warfare, datalinks, integration with other fighters, jamming, secure radios and missile performance. So it’s a system where all the components need to be operating seamlessly. The AESA will also bring enhanced capabilities with electronic attack and SAR, coordinate generation and surface target combat ID.
Is the voice control still used – and if so – is it useful?
I didn’t use the pilot voice control that much. I can generally only do one thing at a time and found it easier to just use the HOTAS. But other pilots used it quite a lot for controlling the radar modes, and like everything on the Typhoon the integration improves with software upgrades. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was used extensively in the years ahead.
Is a non-stealthy aircraft still survivable in your opinion?
A country can’t just build a modern fighter and then relax for thirty years under the umbrella of its protection. It’s a constant process of threat evolution, countermeasure development, and counter-counter measure. The very idea of stealth itself is probably a misnomer too. Low observable jets are undoubtedly harder to target, but still vulnerable to passive detection, low-band radars and heat-seeking sensors. They are also much more costly to build and maintain, and often may make design compromises as they are honed for a particular role, and are limited to internal stores when exploiting their stealth. To use a car analogy, low observable is a little like a Formula One car. Very fast around a racetrack, but a rally car is better off-road.
If you look at the USAF, USN carriers, Israeli and Australian Air Forces and the RAF, they all have a blend of low-observable and conventional platforms. The USAF is about to procure the F15EX. With a mix of conventional and low-observable you can generate mass and saturation, to enhance the low-observable platforms ability to get through to their targets.
How does the Typhoon perform in BFM/DACT exercises against the F-22? Is one superior in WVR combat in your opinion – and why?
The F-22 is the best air dominance fighter in the world (but it doesn’t have much of a strike capability). At slow speed in a turning fight, its thrust vectoring provides exceptional manoeuvrability, which means it can outperform any other fighter on the planet, including the Typhoon. During the initial merge, if both aircraft were fast, then they would turn fairly equally. If the fight was fleeting, the Typhoon would benefit from the Helmet Mounted Sight, which surprisingly the F-22 does not have in its inventory. But perhaps the key point here is that the RAF will never have to fight in anger against a USAF F-22. Their time together is much better spent integrating and developing joint tactics where you learn to exploit the combined firepower of both platforms to lethal effect. We practised this routinely during exercises.
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Combat pilots are far more interested in the capabilities of potential adversaries, so the real question is how does Typhoon perform against modern fighter threats? It is too early to make a judgement about the Su-57 as it is barely out of development. Regarding Flanker, that is precisely what the new AESA, the existing Defensive Aids System and PIRATE IR sensor are for. International training exercises against Indian or Malaysian Flankers were extremely useful, and fully tested the skills of the pilots using the helmet-mounted sight and ASRAAM heat-seeking missile.
Flanker versus Typhoon?
The jets are both very capable. I would say that, flown well, the Typhoon has an edge, but when you have two fighters that are similar in capability the outcome of air combat is more nuanced.
In reality, a simple top-trumps answer doesn’t cut it. It depends on so many different factors, such as radar tenacity, performance of the jet at different speeds (E-M diagrams), sensor integration with the helmet, the sensitivity of the missile seekers, the IR background, pilot training and currency, aircraft fit, environmentals, merge altitude, radar clutter, aircraft jammers, IR countermeasures, disposition pre-merge. There are probably more! That’s why the role of the Qualified Weapons Instructors is so crucial in shaping the tactical advice to their Squadrons, and it’s so important that pilots get to practise their core skills with live flying.
A Rafale pilot I interviewed said ‘Typhoon was a joke’ – what is your response to his view?
There’s nothing like the confidence of a French fighter pilot! The Rafale and Typhoon are from a similar era, but backed by four nations and with five export customers the Typhoon has better growth potential. As the Boss of 1 Squadron we always had a French Rafale pilot on exchange, so I had a real insight into both platforms. For the air-to-air missions, an AESA equipped Typhoon with METEOR, AMRAAM-D and ASRAAM packs a powerful punch with the Helmet Mounted Sight and IRST (called PIRATE).
The Typhoon Force has also received upgraded Paveway 4 (penetrating warhead and moving target capability), which is a great weapon for Close Air Support in combination with Brimstone, which can also be used against fast inshore attack craft. For longer-range strikes, Storm Shadow and SPEAR 3 (the small, long-range, cruise missile) offer significant stand-off, precision, low collateral damage and electronic warfare capabilities. The Litening 5 targeting pods will offer high-definition imagery and a reconnaissance capability. And of course, there is the 27-mm cannon that I have fired in anger. With that weapon load-out you can take on any mission set. So my response to the French pilot, is that given the choice I would take the Typhoon every time.
Would you rather have ASRAAM, IRIS-T or AIM-9X under your wing – and why?
The ASRAAM is a far more capable missile. It is extremely fast off the rail and has a much longer range. It also has a huge off-boresight capability and can lock-on after launch, as well as having advanced counter-counter measures. When paired with the helmet mounted sight in a close fight it is very effective, and at longer range it offers a great crossover with AMRAAM. You can get an ASRAAM to its target before the other aircraft can even launch their IR missile back at you.
An RAF Typhoon recently had its first a2a ‘kill’ – what are your thoughts on this? (I understand RSAF Typhoons have been doing this for a while)
Finding a small drone in a fighter and shooting it down using a heat-seeking missile is pretty impressive. It shows how the jet can roll quickly from supporting the troops one minute to engaging a tricky air-to-air target moments later. More broadly, the use of explosive drones is becoming more prevalent so from a control of the air point of view, I think more thought needs to go into countering these en-masse from western air forces.
How good is Meteor, and why?
I’ve personally never flown with Meteor, but talking to colleagues on the frontline they are very impressed. The layered capability with AMRAAM-D and ASRAAM offer lots of very robust all-weather targeting options and it is a great mixed load to carry.
Tell me something I don’t know about Typhoon
When you are landing the aircraft without engineering support there are often no staging or steps available to climb out of the cockpit. There is a puny little ladder that you can deploy which pops out from under the cockpit. So you can climb down. But there is no retract function, which is a pain in the ass when you want to get back in and take off again.
What was the hardest aspect psychologically?
Keeping a clear head when dealing with constant, changing pressures. In the book I’ve placed the reader in the cockpit so they are immersed in the action and experience the adrenalin. At one point was I was locked-up by a Russian SAM. A couple of weeks later in the dead of night, I almost had a mid-air collision over a city held by enemy troops. There was also the constant threat of hand-held surface to air missiles. I felt the most pressure when friendly troops called in urgent support from fast jets because their lives were in danger. We needed to act swiftly and accurately, and avoid any risk to civilians. Sometimes we would roll from one task to the next, heading to the air-to-air refuelling tanker, and striking targets until we had dropped all eight weapons. On one occasion during a particularly vicious firefight I had to conduct a strafe attack too.
How well suited is Typhoon to taskings in the Middle East? What improvements would you like to see?
Within forty-eight hours of leaving our base in the UK we were conducting around-the-clock close air support missions. The jets held up superbly, and over the five months we conducted well over three hundred strikes. All were direct hits and there were no civilian casualties. I was immensely proud of the team performance. We focus a lot on the aircraft, but it is the people on the Squadron that make it happen. Everyone has a key role to play. Often the most junior, newest members of the squadron have the best ideas. Creating an environment where the engineers, pilots, intelligence, operations and support staff could all communicate effectively and work in harmony was extremely important. At the time we had the Litening 3 targeting pod, which was good, but there were other systems available that could provide clearer imagery. The Force is about to get the Litening 5 pod, which will be a fantastic upgrade and provide much better optics.
What advice would you give to pilots coming to the Close Air Support mission?
One of the most challenging aspects was not knowing what the mission would involve until you were immersed in it. Often I would sit at the end of the runway on a moonless night, with the jet being rocked from side to side by the gusty wind from nearby thunderstorms and the red strobe light flashing against the glistening runway, pondering what the night ahead had in store. Reconnaissance in Syria? Rushing to a troops-in-contact near Mosul? Looking for snipers in Ramadi? Could I remember the Escape & Evasion plan? Would the tanker be in the right place? What if I was low on fuel and the refuelling probe failed? For all fast jet operations, much like sport, the foundations for success lay in the preparations. Striving for tactical excellence and holding yourselves to account during training. Communicating as a team and encouraging a culture of ruthless self-awareness. Always looking for the marginal gains. And creating a bond and strength as a unit so you can carry yourselves through the tough situations.
How do you feel about the current state of the nations you have been to war in?
Afghanistan is a very difficult situation, and my thoughts are with the families who have lost loved ones or seen family members suffer life-changing physical or psychological injuries. In Iraq, my thoughts are a little more positive. Towards the end of the operation, after months of fighting, I saw families return to their homes. Houses that had been abandoned breathed a new life, and this was incredibly heart-warming. It’s important to remember that we live in a liberal democracy, and it’s the politicians, not the pilots, that make the decisions about when to deploy and withdraw from conflicts. In the book I’ve explained what it is like to enact those decisions. To prepare to a level of high readiness, and then to receive the call to respond during a global crisis.
Something I found very interesting in your book was the reference to pilots liking certainty: care to expand on that?
Unpredictability as a pilot is not a great characteristic. A bold, flamboyant approach to flying is not encouraged as it is such a demanding and dangerous occupation. Much like brain surgery I suppose, you need dedication and discipline to learn the procedures. There is room for innovation and novelty – in fact it is essential to developing tactics – but in a controlled way. Finding the balance between the two mindsets isn’t always easy. Defining the best qualities for a fighter pilot is tricky. You need an almost obsessive drive and determination in the first place, the ability to learn fast, have good situational awareness, and to remain calm in the most dynamic situations where your life could be literally on the line. But there is an almost indefinable quality in the best pilots too. A quiet confidence, that learns from criticism and doesn’t take things personally, but strives to be the best; for yourself and your fellow pilots.
How well-supported are RAF veterans dealing with mental health issues in your opinion?
This is a question for Defence, not just the RAF. Things have improved since Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003, where the support was initially woeful. Charities like Help for Heroes and Combat Stress filled a void. Prince Harry once said leaving the military is like being on a bus with all of your mates, which pulls up at a deserted stop. You step off, the doors close and it drives away. You’re on your own. It’s a neat analogy. When you leave the military, you are thrown into the NHS system with support from your GP, who may know very little about operational stress. Particularly for veterans with limited social support and structures, I think significantly more could be done to support those suffering mental health challenges.
You had some very interesting points on the emotional impact of warfare on remote operators of unmanned aircraft, care to share your thoughts on this with our readers?
UAV pilots don’t live in conflict zones and the acute pressures of their work can therefore be overlooked. They could be conducting strikes for months or years on end, with the effect of their actions being played out on high-definition screens right before their eyes. The physical risk is much diminished, but perhaps less so the psychological impact. As the nature and methods of conducting warfare continue to evolve, we need fresh approaches to understanding where the mental pressure points may emerge.
What personality types struggle the most in war in your opinion?
I’m not a psychologist so will probably answer this imperfectly! I found that the trivia of military life was most irritating when it clashed with the pressures of high tempo operations. After landing from an eight-hour flight I often had to face what I considered to be fairly unimportant paperwork, such as overly complicated documents for squadron hire cars, or an overflowing inbox full of banal tasks that were fairly inconsequential yet demanded immediate attention. If the RAF could better prioritise the important from the irrelevant during operations that would be very welcome.
What should I have asked you – and what do you get asked the most?
When you come back from an operation people often ask ‘what was it like?’ My book is an insight into that hidden world. Not just what happened, but what goes through your mind before a strike and just after. A pilot’s concerns, fears and priorities. The conversations that happened on the ground as we were preparing to walk to an aircraft. The complexity of developing tactics and briefing hugely demanding sorties. The struggles to relate easily to domestic life at home with families and friends. And hopefully some analysis along the way!
– Mike Sutton is the author of Typhoon
Prior to flying the F-35B Lightning II, RAF Wing Commander James Schofield flew and fought in RAF Harriers. We interviewed him to find out more about mastering the immortal jump-jet.
What were your first impressions of the Harrier?
“Coming from the Hawk T.1 with its analogue dials and navigating by map and stopwatch, its one type of takeoff and three types of landing (normal, flapless and glide), on arriving at the Operational Conversion Unit in 2000 reading the Harrier GR.7 groundschool notes gave a good impression of the step increase in capability ahead! The systems included a GPS/INS, frequency-agile radios, colour moving map, Zeus electronic warfare (EW) system and infra-red camera both integrated into the head-up display, angle-rate bombing system with a TV/laser tracker… Then there were rockets, freefall bombs, retarded bombs, cluster bombs, practice bombs, laser guided bombs, infra-red guided Maverick missiles, Sidewinder air-to-air missiles… The laser could come from your aircraft (via the TIALD targeting pod), a wingman or a chap on the ground. There were manual releases, computed impact point releases, automatic releases, toss/loft releases. There was visual targeting, GPS/INS targeting, TV targeting, laser targeting. Also chaff, flares, night vision goggles. A lot to read up on!The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature the finest cuts from Hush-Kit along with exclusive new articles, explosive photography and gorgeous bespoke illustrations. Order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here
But before you got to play with much of that you had to learn how to take off (conventional, short, strip, creeping vertical or vertical) and land (conventional, fixed-throttle variable-nozzle, slow, rolling vertical, creeping vertical, vertical). Additional variables were the use of auto flap or STOL flap, and the use of water injection to augment the thrust. You could land on normal runways, roads, grass, on perforated steel planking runways and aircraft carriers. Each of those combinations had a prescribed technique, often complicated and challenging, that you strayed from at your peril. Before every flight you put the aircraft tail number, temperature, pressure and stores configuration into a computer and it told you what nozzle angle to use for whichever flavour of takeoff you were going to attempt, and how much fuel/water you could hover or try a rolling vertical landing with.
Key indicators to watch like a hawk in order to make it to the bar that evening without an ejection and a trip to hospital were: the velocity vector in the HUD which became an inertial vertical speed indicator in the hover (watch out for any unwanted descent!), the “Billy Whizz” hexagon diagram in the HUD telling you how close you were to the most limiting engine parameter (be it RPM, jet pipe temperature or the non-dimensional fan speed), and the unique wind vane in front of the cockpit that enabled you to minimise potentially fatal crosswinds. Oh, and a vibrating rudder pedal that you had to stamp on at your soonest convenience if you ignored the vane.
Every aircraft has its challenges/foibles but I remember getting the books out and thinking “bugger me, there’s a lot here”! Looking back on it now, there was an awful lot to not get wrong but at the time we flew daily which made a big difference. I remember feeling rusty on a Monday morning having had a weekend off!
There were also a fearsome array of limitations to remember, both engine and airframe, which varied depending on aircraft build standard, load-out and speed.
Memories of flying the beast will always stay with me. A fantastic view from that big bubble canopy, a neat and well-laid out cockpit, on the ground the impingement of the jet efflux on the tailplane making it tremble like an attack dog straining to be released, massive air intakes right next to you with a loud whine at full power, brutal acceleration during takeoff, a very responsive aircraft to fly, a strange rumble at idle power as air spilled from those intakes, the laws of physics overpowering common sense as you decelerated towards the hover between swaying trees over some nondescript field in Rutland, cows looking on curiously, your throttle hand advancing all the time as wing lift receded, in your multi-million pound jet fighter. Halcyon days.
I don’t think I was alone, however, in spending most of each flight worrying about the landing – something the Harrier and the Pitts Special sports biplane have in common!”
What is the hardest thing about flying the Harrier?
“Not screwing up in the VSTOL regime.”
What was your most memorable Harrier mission or flight?
“There were hundreds of memorable moments, but I’ll pick my first takeoff from an aircraft carrier. You read the notes, you’re talked through the procedures by an instructor, then you walk out to the aircraft, fire her up and line up on the deck. Although the ski jump is only at an angle of 12 degrees, it looks like a vertical wall in front of you! Up to full power, release the brakes only when the tyres start to skid and you’re off. Screaming down the deck towards the ramp wondering idly if this is actually going to work or whether it’s all an incredibly elaborate wind-up! Up the ramp, lower the nozzles at the top, and you’re airborne. Ease the nozzles aft. Huh, it worked. Time to start worrying about the landing a mere hour away…
Rate the Harrier in the following:
A. Instantaneous turn rate.
“Good, particularly with Vectoring In Forward Flight (VIFF).”
B. Sustained turn rate.
“OK at low level, not much good at medium level.”
C. Climb rate.
“With a thrust to weight ratio of greater than 1:1 it went up very nicely!”
D. High AoA performance.
“Although there were no AoA limits in the earlier aircraft with small LERX (leading edge root extensions) – just handling limits, it wasn’t built for large angles. The larger LERX came with a 24 AoA limit so couldn’t quite match a Hornet (60 AoA) in a nose-pointing contest!”
“Eye-watering going down the runway, disappointing at high speed (all that drag…).”
Did you fly the Harrier in combat? How combat effective was the type?
“Yes, over Iraq in 2003. It was very effective; flexible basing options, lots of hardpoints, a good all-rounder. Obviously combat missions come in a range of exciting flavours. In 2003 over Iraq ours involved both close air support (CAS) and strike missions.
The background to all of this starts back in the UK where we had the luxury of an extensive pre-deployment training period. This was interspersed with intelligence briefs so you’d know what the enemy order of battle was, location of units and so on. We were also very focused on understanding how all of the extra gear worked in the various pockets our jackets were festooned with – mostly survival gear – and what the plans were for egressing on foot if we had to.
In theatre, you’d have regular intelligence briefs to keep abreast of what was always a fluid situation on the ground. On the day, you’d have a weather brief and would then be allocated a piece of sky to hold in and wait for tasking (for CAS) or you’d be given target details (for strike). Significant planning was required to understand what was expected of us, particularly critical given that there would be myriad other air and ground assets in the area, all with their own missions. It was always obvious that we were just one part of a much larger war effort.We were able to interview MiG-25, Mirage, Lightning, Tornado and B-52 pilots thanks to readers’ kind donations. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. In order to carry on we need donations— even £8 a month could do a lot of good.
The missions themselves were fairly tense at the start of hostilities as each side assessed what was being brought to bear against them. As things progressed it was easier to get into a rhythm, whilst always trying to guard against complacency. There’s nothing like getting shot at over barren, hostile territory to focus the mind back on the task at hand! It’s difficult to convey how stressful releasing live ordnance over a battlefield is, particularly with CAS where friendlies are often perilously close. One incorrectly typed digit, or the slightest ambiguity on the radio leading to misidentification of the target area, could lead to disaster. Clearly, there were well-honed procedures to mitigate against these risks but when the chap on the ground is shouting at you to get the bomb off because he’s under attack – you need to be disciplined under pressure.
There’s always a sense of relief after a mission, but it may not be long until you’re off again…”
Are there any things a Harrier can do that a F-35B can’t?
“Not many – bow in the hover; operate from a grass runway; punish the pilot for careless handling. That’s your lot!”
Was the Harrier the most demanding aircraft you have flown?
“It’s certainly in the top three; take the rolling vertical landing (RVL) for instance. You’re on final approach to a 1000 foot long strip at night in rain: fore and aft on the stick initially controls flightpath as you’d expect. You then move the nozzle lever to the hover stop to decelerate at which point you use the stick to control pitch attitude. At 50 knots groundspeed you select a lesser nozzle angle to stop decelerating and the stick then controls groundspeed. Just prior to touchdown it reverts to pitch attitude. So four control strategies with just one of the three hand controllers (stick, throttle, nozzle lever) in under 30 seconds while trying to execute a precise landing with little margin for error – lots of armchair flying required for that one!
The up-and-away handling was occasionally a little tricky too. During an air-to-air refuelling test flight in a very aft CG configuration I was working so hard just to put the probe in the basket I lost the power of speech! Requiring full back stick around finals was common in the two-seater; if the nose carried on dropping the only way out was to add power, which was somewhat counter-intuitive.
It would potentially depart from controlled flight due to intake momentum drag if you let sideslip build up during the transition to or from the hover, with fatal consequences – hence the wind vane in front of the cockpit, and rudder pedal shakers if you didn’t notice the vane!
High speed departures were also not unheard of and could be violent, particularly if you exceeded the lateral stick limits and/or reversed the roll rate rapidly.
Flying at low level at night also had its moments, and no one enjoyed landing on the carrier at night!”
What were the best and worst things about the Harrier?
“The best things were its V/STOL capabilities and its ability to reliably project air power for a reasonable cost; it was ultimately a relatively simple aircraft which kept costs down and reliability up.
The worst things were the unforgiving handling (however, the satisfaction of successfully operating a challenging aircraft was half the appeal) and the V/STOL design compromises meaning we always got whooped during air combat training by F-15s / F-16s / F/A-18s.”
What equipment/weapons or sensors would have you liked to have seen added to the Harrier?
Easy – radar and AMRAAM. Having some Harrier II+ configured aircraft would have been fantastic.
What is the biggest myth about the aircraft?
“That the whining doesn’t stop when you turn off the engine! (The joke being that Harrier pilots whinge incessantly. I mean, have you ever met an F.3 pilot??)”
Is STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing) a good idea?
“If you’re confident that any conventional runways you may operate from – either at home or at a forward operating base – are invulnerable then you don’t need it. I would opine that such a stance would be foolhardy. Also, stopping then landing on a carrier will always be easier and cheaper than landing then stopping (acknowledging that this leads to design compromises, e.g. a single engine, large intakes or a lift fan).”
Was the absence of cannon and radar problematic?
“The lack of radar did get you looking out of the window a lot, and building a mental picture of the tactical situation from radio transmissions was a cherished skill. At times you did feel like you were stumbling around in the dark – the absolute opposite of the level of situational awareness that today’s F-35 brings. At least we had a very good EW system, the display for which was in the HUD, to let you know who was looking at you and from what angle.
As for the gun, it’s always nice to have a cheap forward-firing weapon but the attempts to fit a 25mm derivative of the Aden cannon failed and, anecdotally, at that point there was no money to buy the GAU-12 5-barrel cannon (drool).”
What advice would you give to Harrier pilots?
“To any US Marine Corps, Italian Navy or Spanish Navy Harrier pilots; I envy you – enjoy it while it lasts!
Which three words would you use to describe the Harrier?
“Best. Of. British. (Harrier GR.3 / FA.2)
Revolutionary, legendary, challenging!”
Do you think the British got rid of their fleet too early? And what do you think about what happened to the air frames?
“Absolutely, but as I understand it the MoD had to save a load of money and they couldn’t bin the Tornado GR.4 due to its unique (at the time) ability to carry Storm Shadow. We’d have much rather seen the airframes continue to fly than mothballed and used for spares, but the GR.9 was so different from the USMC’s aircraft that they would effectively have had two fleets, which wouldn’t have been a practical proposition.”
What should I have asked you?
“F-35 or Harrier? F-35 for everything bar the satisfaction of mastering the handling challenge of the Harrier.”
Would Vectoring in Forward Flight (VIFFing) have been useful in a dogfight?
“Using a smidge of nozzle at higher speeds was a valid proposition to gain a little more turn performance. Using a lot of nozzle at lower speeds gave a marked increase in turn rate, but physics being what it is the side-effect was a large reduction in energy which left you a sitting duck if your attempt to snap the nose around for a missile shot failed. I usually found that VIFFing worked quite well when pulling down from the vertical – people weren’t expecting a Hornet-like ability to nose-point – but if I was fighting in the horizontal the nozzle lever often led to disappointment! Putting the nozzles all the way forward in a “Braking Stop Spiral” manoeuvre meant you could descend vertically at a ridiculously low speed and often opponents couldn’t stay behind you. But you had to leave plenty of height to recover…”
How good was the GR9 at the time of its retirement?
“As with most aircraft when they’re retired, it had never been better and had an amazing future ahead of it! I started flying the GR.7 in 2000 and the GR.9/9A was retired in early 2011; by then it had been fitted with a larger engine (GR.9A) and some truly cutting-edge avionics, sensors and weapons: the excellent Sniper targeting pod, the TIEC datalink which went some way to offsetting the lack of radar, the Paveway 4 GPS/laser bomb with which we could simultaneously release six bombs against six different targets through cloud, the Brimstone anti-armour weapon, the ASRAAM air-to-air missile, encrypted radios…such a shame it went before its time.”
With which units did you fly the Harrier and what was your rank?
“I served on No 3 (Fighter) Squadron (2000-2003) at RAF Cottesmore, and the Fast Jet Test Squadron (2005-2006) at MoD Boscombe Down, both as a Flight Lieutenant.
(I joined the RAF in 1996 as a Pilot Officer and left as a Wing Commander in 2016.)”
Tell me something I don’t know about the Harrier
“Flying through hail would smash the EW “tusk” fairings under the nose. Ask me how I know…”
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RAF Wing Commander Scott Williams is currently flying the F-35B Lightning II, the world’s most advanced fighter, with the US Marine Corps. We interviewed him to find out more about what is also the world’s most controversial aircraft.
What were your first impressions of the F-35B? Technologically mind-blowing and a true engineering marvel. As a pilot it flies extremely smoothly and the handling is exceptional, especially when converting flight regimes to slow speed or jet-borne modes; that transition is almost imperceptibly smooth with no adverse characteristics. High angle-of-attack manoeuvring is very easy and forgiving, with excellent nose and flight control ‘authority’ throughout. Power is very apparent with impressive acceleration in dry power on take-off.
Which three words would you use to describe the F-35B? Lethal; Game-changing (I consider that one word!); Growth.
“‘…fighting the F-35 is like going into a boxing match and your opponent doesn’t even know you’re in the ring yet!’”
What are the greatest myths about the F-35B? That it isn’t operational; that stealth doesn’t ‘work’; that external stores on F-35 defeats the point of its design.
What are the best and worst things about the aircraft? The best thing is how quickly and effectively the F-35 allows the pilot to make decisions – fusing sensor and other data from onboard and off-board sources to display what’s out there and what’s going on. Worst thing? I’d like a bit more fuel but what pilot doesn’t?!
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Have you flown basic fighter manoeuvres against Typhoons (or any other types) if so, how did the aircraft do? I haven’t flown BFM in the F-35B against Typhoon or other types (yet!) but I’m sure I will soon.
Though the aircraft is not designed primarily as a WVR ‘dogfighting’ platform -and this may not be a desirable way to fight- how would it do in this respect? Pretty darn well, but there are so many factors that determine the outcome of a WVR fight; pilot proficiency, situational awareness, missile capabilities, countermeasures…every one of these things make a difference but if one were to postulate that in 1000 BVR engagements only a few would likely end up in a WVR fight, you need to ask yourself where you should invest the money, proportionally. Designing a lightweight dogfighter was arguably relevant in the 1970s as fly-by-wire tech gave birth to increasing (super)manoeuvrability; today it isn’t anywhere near as important but still cool for air shows.
Can the aircraft currently work communicate well with Typhoons, what are the considerations in working together? I won’t talk about what we do with Typhoon but the communications have been tested on trials and they work. I’d say a generic consideration for working latest generation fighters with legacy platforms is ensuring you understand their capabilities and limitations.
What is your most memorable mission in the F-35B? There are a few, but the one that stands out for me has to be my first STOVL flight. Comparing the aircraft to the Harrier first-hand was a unique privilege and genuinely brought a smile to my face. I think the UK and US teams who developed the STOVL Control Laws (CLAW), and the pioneering research from the VAAC Harrier and test pilots, were responsible for a huge triumph. Boscombe Down, take a bow!
What’s the best thing about the sensors? How they interact and complement each other with sensor fusion. For 15 years I’ve flown aircraft that need a targeting pod strapped on – these things were normally only bought in limited numbers so you’d get to use them on specific events. Having a targeting pod on every single F35 (the EOTS – Electro-Optical Targeting System) is hugely beneficial for training in all missions.
How good is the situational awareness compared to other aircraft you have flown and how does that change things? Nothing compares to it. Nothing. And information changes everything. When you look at Boyd’s well-known OODA loop, traditionally the hardest things are to answer ‘what’s out there’, ‘what’s it doing’, ‘what do I need to do’. That decision loop can cause paralysis which can lead to a quick demise in a combat fight. F-35 helps enormously in this regard and allows the pilot to act rather than react – reacting is what we’ll make the enemy do. Constantly.
When will the British have a combat capable F-35 force? The UK has a combat capable F-35 force today and declared Initial Operating Capability very recently, so are able to deploy on combat operations at any point from herein. The Block 3F capability is highly combat capable, despite what you may wish to believe or what is written by a number of prominent bloggers.
What would you change about the F-35B? Across all three variants the B does has the least fuel, but I believe it makes up for that with the ability to operate from the QE Carriers, bases with much shorter runways (~3000ft, predominantly for a re-supply tactical AT platform), or even other nations’ carriers when required.The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes will feature the finest cuts from Hush-Kit along with exclusive new articles, explosive photography and gorgeous bespoke illustrations. Order The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes here
How does its reliability and ease of maintenance compare with other aircraft you’ve flown? Most of the previously reported reliability issues have been software-related in my experience. Maintenance is logical and designed to be as straightforward as possible but the still maturing F-35 global sustainment enterprise results in delays in supplying spares to a high number of demanding customers and countries. With 8.6+ million lines of software code, this aircraft is many times more complex in how it operates compared to a Typhoon (or even an F-22 Raptor) but the latest software and hardware combinations in Block 3F have resulted in improved reliability for sure!
Will a F-35B fly the close support mission in a different way to a GR4 or Typhoon? F-35 will be able to fly the mission in a much more hostile and contested airspace than a GR4 and Typhoon by virtue of its low observable capabilities. However, the rudiments of how a pilot conducts CAS do not necessarily change that much but differences in platform sensor capabilities are an example. It’s well documented that F-35 does not currently have a CCD capability in the EOTS so we’re restricted to infra-red only. That’s something I’d like to see improved soon in impending upgrades and it’s ‘in the plan’ so to speak. Expanded weapons integration in future will also open the variety of effects that we can give the ground commander too.
Do you like the helmet system? The HMD is a truly incredible piece of kit because it really does bring a further dimension to the situational awareness for the pilot. If you then consider the built-in Night Vision Camera and ability to project full-coverage IR imagery of the outside world no matter where you point your head, the ability to point or cue a weapon quickly by day or by night is a great capability.
What should I have asked you? What’s it like working closely with the US Marines! It’s awesome – those guys and girls work like Trojans to achieve the mission and we have a close relationship building for cooperation in future.
Interview with an RAF Typhoon pilot here
How would you rate its BVR capabilities? Second to none really. First to see is first to shoot, is first to kill. I recently heard a comment from someone that ‘…fighting the F-35 is like going into a boxing match and your opponent doesn’t even know you’re in the ring yet!’ I like that comment because our lethality is enhanced by being able to deliver the killer or knock-out blow to our opponents before they get enough awareness on what’s going on to prepare or do something about it.
How would you rate its ground attack and recce abilities compared to the GR4 or Typhoon? We only have Paveway IV currently, however this will expand with SPEAR 3 and other weapons in future but the single weapon option is a bit of a limitation of sorts right now, even though PWIV is an excellent weapon that’s proven itself against our enemies time and again. There is also potential for UK to procure the GAU-22/A Gun Pod if needs be and the USMC have already employed it. The variety of recce options on F-35 are good – from EOTS (IR) to DAS, to Radar Mapping, we have a true all-weather and, in many cases, multi-spectral recce capability. However, F-35 isn’t a dedicated “recce” platform so you can perhaps understand why there’s no pod like the RAPTor on Tornado as an example.
Interview with a MiG-25 pilot here
Tell me something I don’t know about the F-35B. “I could tell you but I’d have to kill you”…
What is your rank and with which air arm do you serve? Wing Commander, Royal Air Force
What is your unit? Currently VMFAT-501 (USMC F-35B Fleet Replacement Squadron or FRS). However, this year all of my Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Instructor Pilots (IPs), Engineers and Mission Support staff will form the nucleus of 207 Squadron at RAF Marham on 1 July 2019, and we will also fly our aircraft back to the UK later that month.
Which types have you flown? Harrier GR7/GR9; Tornado GR4 (post-SDSR10, after Harrier was retired early) and I now fly the F-35B Lightning and instruct both US Marine and UK students on VMFAT-501.
Interview with a B-52 pilot here
Why was 207 Sqn chosen for the F-35B? Will the RAF and RN share F-35s? The choice was intentional — and was made due to the fact that 207 originated as 7 (Naval) Squadron, RNAS, in 1916. When the independent RAF was born on 1 April 1918 and subsumed RNAS and RFC squadrons, 7(N) re-badged to become 207 Sqn. So the number plate was purposefully chosen to have both Naval and Air Force lineage. We don’t ‘share’ the F-35B Lightning like one might share a car with a friend or partner. Instead the Lightning Force – and by that I specifically mean the aircraft, its personnel, equipment and support infrastructure – is all jointly-manned by serving Royal Navy and RAF personnel, including our vital civilian and reservist staff who make up what we call the ‘Whole Force’.
Have a look at this fab model here
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