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.
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’.
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We asked Hush-Kit followers to vote on the which aircraft were the most beautiful. Surprisingly, their voting choices were not completely insane.
Boeing Dreamliner 787 Dreamliner
Airbus A350 XWB
With its sharky tail, sawtooth engine nacelles and slimmer body we expected the Dreamliner to walk this, but the results were tighter than the elbows of EasyJet passengers. Both aircraft have lovely noses, with the A350 having a more distinctive cockpit windows, like a fast train wearing goggles. Wingwise the Dreamliner has the edge, with its lovely raked back tips and flappy flexibility.
European Middleweight clash
The Matt & Luke of the fighter world, the Typhoon and Rafale are very similar yet provoke more rows than almost any other two types. The Typhoon suffers from a plasticy look, a fussy boxy intake and a lack of curves, the Rafale a dorky 60s refuelling probe and what looks like a catering-size box of clingfilm strapped onto its fin. Clearly, this had to go to Rafale, because despite Typhoon’s noble canopy, lovely nose and decent proportions, the French aircraft is far prettier. Rafale TF-102-esque forward fuselage and kidney intakes are an absolute treat of delicious Henry Moore curves, the canards are a small and perky detail set neatly close to the not overly large wing. The overall design is compact with some lovely detail features such as the gold flash cockpit and serrated stealthy panel edges. The unusual jet nozzles are rather bland but overall the Rafale is a beautiful aircraft, something reflected in readers’ votes.
Fourth Gen Heavyweights
McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle
Sukhoi T-10 ‘Flanker’ series
Bill Sweetman noted that the the ‘Flanker’ “..looks incomparably bad-ass, as if God designed a pterodactyl to go Mach 2.” and our readers generally agreed. The Eagle is beautiful too, but more butch than elegant (with its undercarriage out the F-15 does look very awkward).
A poetic swan or Darth Vader’s weekend runaround? Come on!
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Imagine a world without Danny DeVito, Roger Daltrey and George Lucas. There’s a parallel universe where Rick Moranis played Schwarzenegger’s brother in Twins, where The Who never happened and where Star Wars was a military project to make Reagan hard and the Soviet Union broke. This speculative universe is one in which famous figures born in 1944 never happened. One star from 1944 that never happened in this universe was the Martin-Baker MB.5. This remarkable fighter flew as a prototype and demonstrated capabilities that left every other aircraft in the shade. This superb aircraft had everything going for it, apart from timing. We asked Dr RV Smith to tell its story.
The Martin-Baker MB1 G-ADCS was a clean two seat low wing monoplane, which was built at Denham and first flown from nearby Northolt during March 1935. The company then turned its talents to the design of a series of high-performance fighter aircraft that set new standards for ease of maintenance and servicing.
The MB2 (M-B-1/G-AEZD/P9594) first flew at Harwell on 3 August 1938; the MB3 R2492 first flew at Wing on 31 August 1942. Sadly, the MB3 crashed following engine failure on 12 September 1942 fatally injuring Capt. Baker.
The design of the MB3 was evolved into the Rolls-Royce Griffon-powered Martin-Baker MB5 R2496. This imposing aircraft featured a large contra-rotating propeller, wide undercarriage track, straight-tapered wing of 35ft span mounting four 20-mm Hispano cannon, and an under-fuselage radiator unit, similar to that of the Mustang.
The cockpit was set well-forward under a blown canopy, providing excellent all-round vision and forward view over the slim downward-sloping nose.
The MB5 was flown for the first time at Harwell on 23rd May 1944.
The MB5 R2496 was displayed publicly at Farnborough in October 1945 and in June 1946. The latter display, flown by Jan Zurakowski, was described as ‘presenting one of the most brilliant flying demonstrations of the day and was outstanding for its speed, range and manoeuvrability’. Zurakowski later said it was ‘the best airplane I have ever flown’.
The comments below have been summarised from a number of articles, several of which draw upon a 1946 report “A&AEE Report 838 Pt 1 MB5 Engineering & Maintenance appraisal”, which is held in the National Archives.
Philip Jarrett comments in an article for Rolls-Royce Magazine that ‘the A&AEE report praised the MB5 in unusually glowing terms, using a generous number of superlatives’.
Perhaps the most striking comments, which are quoted in the Flight Magazine flight test article published on 18th December 1947 and written by Wing Commander MA Smith, DFC state:
“… this aircraft is excellent and is greatly superior, from the engineering and maintenance aspect, than any similar type. The layout of the cockpit might very well be made standard for normal piston-engined fighters, and the engine installation might, with great advantage, be applied to other aircraft.”
Other articles also quote the statement that “The time necessary for a quick turn-around… would appear to be very low when compared with existing types of aircraft.”
Jarrett expands on this with the following description: “The 2,340hp Rolls-Royce Griffon 83 engine with its de Havilland contra-rotating propeller was carried on a special mounting that made its removal simple, and all of the cowling panels were also quickly removable, laying the engine completely bare ‘within a few minutes’.
Access to the carburettor main auxiliary gearbox, ignition system and Coffman cartridge starter was easy. All of the coolant radiators were enclosed within the rear fuselage, using a common intake and a controllable efflux.
Likewise, the fuselage panels were quickly detachable, allowing immediate access to all parts of the aircraft’s structure and the accessories and equipment. Every strut or member of the tubular fuselage frame was easily accessible and simple to replace in the event of damage.
The cockpit layout was described as ‘excellent.’ Martin-Baker’s patented control assembly could be removed en bloc by withdrawing a few bolts, without affecting the control settings. All three instrument panels, one in the centre and two at the sides, hinged fully forward when two quick-release handles were undone, permitting instruments to be changed with the minimum of effort.
Quickly opened bays in the upper surfaces gave access to the two 20mm Hispano cannon in each wing, with 200 rounds per gun fed by a Martin-Baker flat-feed mechanism. A servicing platform could be attached to ease the armourer’s task.”
The Martin-Baker MB5 had a 35 ft wingspan and was 37 ft 9 in long. The undercarriage track was 15ft 2in. The MB5 had a maximum speed of 395 mph at sea level, 425 mph at 6,000 ft and 460 mph at 20,000 ft. The aircraft stalled at 95 mph in the landing configuration.
The MB5 had a quoted initial rate of climb of 3,800 fpm and could reach 20,000 ft in 6.5 minutes and 34,000 ft in 15 minutes. The aircraft had an empty weight of 9,233lb, a normal weight of 11,500lb, and a maximum weight of 12,090 lb.
Some points made in the most interesting flight test report published in Flight International in December 1947 are summarised below:
“I was impressed by the size and somewhat brutal appearance of the power section and, in fact, of the whole aircraft.” The “clean-cut business-like appearance” of the aircraft “and its ‘office’ were confidence-producing”.
The “wide undercarriage gives a stable feel on the ground”. The stroboscopic effect of the contraprops when taxying toward the sun was most distracting.
There was a tremendous response to throttle and the aircraft was delightful on take-off. The throttle was smooth and responsive, but the propeller pitch lever was rather sensitive with large response to small movement. The engine was virtually vibration-free and the noise level in the cockpit was low. The pilot cruised the MB5 at 315 mph at 8,000ft using 4lb boost and 2,250 rpm, these settings being being somewhat lower than those recommended.
The spring tab controls were said to give an air of laziness in response, their balance was commendable, but with a feeling of slight sponginess being commented on. Elevators and ailerons were “light, without being over-light, although the stick pressure required for a slow roll at about 315 mph was rather more than I had expected”.
Approaching the stall with flaps down at 3,000ft, the controls became sloppy around 110 mph, the aircraft rolling away to the left at just over 100 mph.
Approaching the airfield in a fast descent to about 1,200ft, the ASI showed about 465mph “the aircraft felt as smooth and solid as one could wish”. Putting the airscrew into fine pitch preparatory to landing “was like putting on a hand brake”.
The landing sequence was described as follows: Flaps down at 160 mph, power to adjust rate of descent. At around 130mph, the aircraft was trying to adopt the landing attitude, but still with a good forward view. Cross the hedge at around 115mph, throttle right back and flare, small attitude adjustment and the aircraft “sat down and stayed down on three points in a satisfactory manner”.
“I decided that the handling of the M-B 5 was pleasing in every way and that another hour or two on it would be a very enjoyable experience”.
The only cockpit criticisms were that “the ignition switches under the left elbow did not seem well positioned”, and that “the trim indicators were small and not too easy to read near the left hip.”
“However, in all important aspects of equipment and control, the M-B 5 definitely sets a very high standard.”
Could the Martin-Baker MB5 have been improved upon?
It seems clear that the aircraft was superlative in terms of maintenance accessibility and possessed an excellent cockpit layout, subject to the minor points noted by W/Cdr Smith in his test report for Flight International. General handling and control harmonisation was clearly very good, although both W/Cdr Smith and, apparently Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, had some reservations about the crispness of the roll control.
Two aspects occur to me, The wing loading (wing area 262 Sq ft) was rather high at 46.1 lb/sq ft at 12,090 lb maximum weight, resulting in a stall speed close to 100 mph and possibly limiting sustained turning performance.
Comparable figures for other well-known aircraft are as follows: Tempest V at 11.500 lb 38 lb/sq ft; Spitfire FRXIVE at 8,475 lb 34.8 lb/sq ft; P-51D at 10,100 lb 43.3 lb/sq ft.
Given the high speeds attained, there might also be scope for the use of an improved aerofoil. The MB5 used the RAF34 wing section, which dated back to 1927, albeit with the excellent pedigree of being used on the DH88 Comet and the DH98 Mosquito.
It is interesting to speculate that one of the Hawker aerofoils used on the Tempest and Sea Fury, might have reduced the type’s drag at high speed and/or increased its critical Mach number.
So, my imagination drifts in the direction of an MB5 fuselage, powerplant and cooling system married to a Hawker Tempest V (302 sq ft) wing, or, probably better, a Fury (280 sq ft) wing (less the port wing root oil cooler).
— Dr RV Smith, CEng, FRAeS
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Today, thanks to former Head of Future Projects at Westland Helicopters, Dr Ron Smith, we have gleaned further information on this intriguing, and potentially word-beating, project.
“The Supersonic Rotor Helicopter. this was a project
completed by the long-term Future Project Office prior to my joining
Westland in October 1975. A report summarising the work was needed to
secure contract payment and I was tasked with pulling it together
(based on the work already conducted by others).
The SSRH proposition is based on the fact that if you increase the
rotor tip speed, the retreating blade stall boundary goes out to a
higher helicopter forward speed. (It’s a function of the ratio of
forward speed to tip speed, which is known as the Advance Ratio).
Suppose the tip speed is Mach 0.6 and at a particular blade loading
(think weight), the retreating blade limit is at an advance ratio of
0.3. That means that retreating blade stall will occur at Mach 0.18
(about 230 mph). In this case, the VNE might be say 210 mph (10%
If you double the tip speed to M=1.2, you can, in principle, fly at the
same advance ratio at double the speed (roughly 400 mph).
The study report (early 1976) looked at the shock wave propagation
geometries and a relatively basic performance calculation, in the
context of various designs targeted at naval roles. A range of
different tip Mach numbers were studied. WG32 was one of the sample
layouts (looking at them now, it appears that single, twin and three
engine variants were schemed). As far as I can tell, they were not
allocated separate WG numbers.
The obvious potential issues would be external noise and high power
requirements. But, in principle, it ought to work.
Although I wrote the report, I was not involved with any customer
meetings, but the feedback I was given by the Research Director was
that both he and the customer were very pleased with the report.
This was a piece of research to examine feasibility and highlight risks
and issues. I would imagine that it was felt that there was too much
risk to go down this route when conventional helicopter solutions could
probably provide adequate operational performance with lower risk in a
(Studies had already been completed on WG26 (Multi-Role Fleet
Helicopter) which went on via WG31 (Sea King Replacement) and WG34 to
become EH101 / Merlin).
I was not involved in any of these airframe studies, other than some
limited supporting work that I contributed to, in respect of the stall
flutter analysis of what became the BERP rotor blade.”
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Have a look at How to kill a Raptor, An Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers, the 10 worst British military aircraft, The 10 worst French aircraft, Su-35 versus Typhoon, 10 Best fighters of World War II , top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians.
In World War II, aerial photo reconnaissance was scientific — a rigorous and methodical observation of the enemy’s strength. The Photo Reconnaissance Spitfire became the chief Allied tool of this undertaking, alongside the de Havilland Mosquito. Allied aerial reconnaissance gave the Manhattan Project and Bletchley Park a run for their war-winning money for its scale and cleverness. Within this effort, the Supermarine Spitfire excelled as an intelligence-gathering machine whose pilots had a secretive, heroic job performed alone over enemy territory.
The Spitfire, born as a fighter, roared into this new role with alacrity. Before even the Battle of Britain it was serving the PR mission with aplomb. Cameras, with lenses wider than our heads, displaced guns. This brought extra capacity for missions eventually to Norwegian fjords, radar sites in occupied France, German industrial cities. Never glamorous in appearance, the P.R. Spits wore mostly grey-blue or dull pink paint schemes, like something from our stealthy era.
Pride of the Kriegsmarine, the battleship Bismarck, was spotted readying for her fatal high seas debut by a P.R. Spitfire pilot. The very last Royal Air Force operational flight by a Spitfire utilised a P.R. Version, in 1954! All the milestone editions of the Spitfire included camera-equipped versions. The P.R. Mark XI, in the very middle of the Spitfire line, is a wonderful thing. Look for camera ports, pointy fin and rudder and an enlargement to the underside of the nose for the bigger engine oil tank needed on those long, cold flights that helped win a war.
Stephen Caulfield is a civilian employee of the Salvation Army “stationed” on the frontlines of North American consumer insanity in a modern recycling plant where he finds the occasional Spitfire.
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Few things say ‘Britain’ and ‘aviation’ more than the Supermarine Spitfire. This aircraft has become the icon of a time. Its fame has crossed well beyond the borders of the British Isles and Europe reaching people in different continents and times. Nowadays, the aircraft is part of popular culture. ‘Spitfire’ has become a synonym for World War II fighter aircraft in a similar way to that has made Cessna the generic name for every small, single engine piston-powered aircraft, no matter the actual type or manufacturer. I’m pretty sure I can ask my father or my son “have you ever seen a Spitfire?” and get a “yes” as an answer. Indeed, everyone knows the ‘Spit’.
Although I’m not particularly keen on World War II aircraft (to be honest I’m a technology geek and tend to focus on modern fighters from Generation three onwards) the Spitfire is surely the foreign aircraft from World War II that I love the most. Neither the fastest, not even the most manoeuvrable, nor the sturdiest aircraft of the War — the Spitfire is to my eyes one of the most beautiful. Her gentle curves, attractive aerodynamic shape and signature wing have even contributed to her success because, you know, ‘beautiful aircraft fly better’. I can’t exactly remember when I first saw the iconic aircraft. It must have been at an airshow in the UK or at her ‘home’ at Duxford. Still, I’m sure about the last time I saw one — it was not too long ago, when I once again visited the marvellous Italian Air Force Museum in Vigna di Valle near Rome that hosts a restored —and controversial – because of the slightly modified camouflaged colour scheme — Spitfire Mk. IX in the markings of the 5° Stormo (Wing) of the Aeronautica Militare. What an amazing plane!
David David Cenciotti is the creator of The Aviationist