F-35 pilots talked to The National Interest about a wide range of attributes related to the jet, to include computing, weapons, stealth configuration, data management and speed, yet all of this pertains to a fundamental reality which pilots say may be of greatest significance … life.
Pilots are much more likely to survive in an F-35 than other available fighter jets, pilots say.
F-35 pilot and Chief of Fighter Operation at Lockheed Martin Tony “Brick” Wilson says pilot survivability is arguably the most significant advantage of the F-35.
“It's not just survivability when you take this aircraft into harm's way. Pilot safety is first and foremost in almost everything that we do from the time that the canopy comes down to the time the jet is back, safe on deck, having completed its mission. Then the pilot is able to hop out safely and go home,” Wilson said in the interview.
Naturally, there are many contributing components to survivability, to include stealth, speed, precision weaponry and long-range sensing. Wilson explained that F-35 sensing and computing can give pilots specifics regarding the extent of a threat, giving them key insight regarding how best to manage an engagement.
“What I mean by that is when flying my fourth-generation aircraft, it's a combination of not only managing your own sensors, not only taking in the information a particular data link is providing, but also knowing just how intensive an air-to-air engagement or an air-to-surface engagement is,” Wilson said.
F-35: Auto Ground Collision Avoidance System
Alongside these attributes, survivability attributes for the F-35 also include the existence on an integrated Auto Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS), a technology which uses computer automation and advanced algorithms to change course in flight autonomously in the event that a pilot is incapacitated.
“We use systems such as Auto Ground Collision Avoidance Systems (Auto GCAS) so that when the aircraft is at a precarious attitude that could result in ground collision, the aircraft gives the pilot the capability to react and when the pilot fails to react, it recovers the aircraft and puts it on a safe trajectory again, so that not only can the pilot take it into harm's way, but they can also come home safely every time,” Wilson said.
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The Auto GCAS technology calculates where the aircraft is and where it would hit the ground based upon the way it is flying at the time. If the fighter jet is flying toward a potential collision with the ground, the on-board computer system will override the flight path and pull the aircraft away from the ground. Interestingly, results from a case study featuring test-pilot input on AGCAS details some of the ways pilots can learn to work with and “trust” the system’s computer automation. This question of how pilots would rely upon the system emerged as a substantial concern, according to the research, because the system takes control away from the pilot.
“Understanding pilot trust of Auto-GCAS is critical to its operational performance because pilots have the option to turn the system on or off during operations,” writes paper about the case study called “Trust-Based Analysis of an Air Force Collision Avoidance System” in “Ergonomics in Design: The Quarterly of Human Factors Applications.”
The paper further explains that results from their study found that AGCAS was deemed far superior by test pilots to previous “warning systems” which are “prone to false alarms,” can “degrade trust.”
“Warning systems require the user to manually respond and thus are not effective when the pilot is incapacitated or spatially disoriented, and the pilot may not always correctly recognize a warning or correctly make the terrain collision evasion maneuver,” the paper writes.
F-35: Mission Possible
There are also key tactical advantages to having increased survivability as it can of course present new, previously impossible mission options, according to Lockheed F-35 Test Pilot Chris “Worm” Spinelli.
“The F-35 has a unique capability to go into extremely dynamic situations and environments, higher threat environments, more so than a normal fourth-generation fighter would be able to do. It’s extremely incredible, especially because of its stealth technology and its ability to not be seen by certain threats. I think from a pilot's perspective that survivability is huge, especially against some of the emerging threats that we have coming online,” Spinelli said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.