F-35 Paris Flight Demo: Much Ado About Nothing

PARIS Air Show --- It was billed as the ninth wonder of the world, as a breath-taking inflight demonstration that, in six short minutes, would wipe away a decade of “misinformation” by critics of the mighty F-35, Lockheed’s “5th generation” super dooper fighter that is 7 years late, has doubled in cost to $396 billion, is still in development after 16 years, and still can’t meet requirements. No grounds for criticism, obviously.

Overhyping the flight demo

A June 18 story in Aviation Week’s Show News was headlined “Paris Performance Will ‘Crush Years of Misinformation’,” and quoted Lockheed Martin test pilot Billie Flynn as saying “After 10 years since first flight, with our first opportunity to demonstrate the capabilities and the maneuverability of the F-35, we are going to crush years of misinformation about what this aircraft is capable of doing.”

Flightglobal’s own June 18 story was headlined “F-35 goes from zero to hero,” and simply added that the F-35 would “perform a high-g F-22-style display with a Lockheed test pilot at the controls.”

Likewise, Military.com headlined its own June 18 story “Unleash the Beast,” adding that the “F-35 Aerial Demo Sends Message to Dogfight Doubters.”

The problem is that these stories were written before the aircraft had flown, simply quoting lines that Lockheed Martin and the US Air Force had told to young reporters too inexperienced to realize they were being fed unadulterated pap as part of the corporate spin.

Lockheed’s chief F-35 spokesman, Michael J. Rein, who is shortly leaving his position, did not respond to repeated requests for comment at the air show.

Over-hyping and under-performing is F-35 hallmark

In these days of 24-hour news cycle, instant communications and hyperventilated click-baiting, stories promising an extraordinary F-35 flight display were picked up and re-posted across the world-wide web, even on websites that had nothing to do with airplanes, and clearly re-written by people who couldn’t tell a tailpipe from a radome.

Yet, despite the buzz generated and the enthusiastic headlines (“US plane manufacturers just won the Paris air show,” “The F-35 Fighter Jet Quiets Haters with a Wild Demo Flight,” and “F-35 Stamps Fifth-Gen Authority On Paris,” none of these stories provided any substantiation to back up their enthusiastic headlines.

Stunningly, given its earlier hyperbolic pre-show billing, Aviation Week revisited the issue on June 23, this time under the headline “F-35 Unleashed: Paris Flight Demo Displays Warfighting Potential.” And the story led with the claim that “The F-35’s premier performance in the skies above Le Bourget Airport is the resounding answer to years of assertions that Lockheed Martin’s fifth-generation stealth fighter is a waste of taxpayer money and will be no match for potential adversaries.”

“Now, Lockheed hopes to turn the page on the F-35’s checkered past and shift focus to what it does best: fight.”

Which won’t happen because, late on June 22, the 3rd Marine Air Wing announced that it had grounded all of its F-35s because of concerns over Lockheed’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS).

This follows an 11-day grounding in early June of 55 US Air Force F-35s due to hypoxia concerns, showing that the aircraft still has major technical failings, and explaining why it has so many critics.

But, in any case, the F-35’s Paris flight display failed to live up to its wildly excessive billing.

F-35’s Flight display was the damp squib of the year

This writer, which has been watching air displays since 1975, found it bland and totally unremarkable except for two things: the noise – it was extremely loud, far louder than at last June’s trial flights in the Netherlands -- and the airplane’s fast rate of climb, thanks to its engine’s 40,000 pounds of thrust.

But none of the maneuvering demonstrated anything that’s not been seen for years, whether it’s the “pedal turn” or the claimed 7 g maneuvers that were totally invisible from the ground.

After having seen the displays put on by real fighter jets such as the F-15 and F-16, Gripen, Rafale and Eurofighter, not to mention the Russian Su-27 and MiG-29, the F-35’s effort looked pretty lame.

And this is not a solitary opinion. The first three comments posted on Aviation Week’s pre-show story tell a similar tale:

Dave59 on Jun 19, 2017
“He will start with an afterburner takeoff, almost immediately pointing his nose to the sky and letting the aircraft climb away essentially vertically. This impressive move is unique to the F-22 and the F-35, he said.” -- Lockheed Martin test pilot Billie Flynn

The F-15 has been doing that in airshow displays since the eighties. Personally seen a lot of times.

TheSandbagger on Jun 19, 2017:
Never believe a snake-oil salesman or an LM PR jockey.
Come to think of it, what's the difference?

Invictus Slo on Jun 19, 2017
Mig-29 in RIAT 2015 ;).
So much about being unique.

But reporters’ impressions are not enough to form a clear opinion of what the F-35’s flight display at Paris was actually worth, so we asked some fast jet display pilots for their impressions.

Comments from around the show

This is compendium of comments gathered in informal interviews around the air show, June 18-21, or by e-mail:

-- “A European military pilot said the nose jumped around while the aircraft was banking, which he took as a sign of faulty flight control software.”

-- “Very powerful engine, fast climb rate, but stayed far higher than other planes: I wonder why.”

-- “I wasn't impressed with all that lolling around.”

-- “Strip the weapons racks out of the bomb bay, remove the tail hook, yank out the relief tube and pray for a nice cold day with low humidity (makes the air denser). Besides all that, there's almost certainly another 1000 or 2000 pounds they could surreptitiously unbolt for this 10-minute, “wow-the-yahoos” circus act.”

-- “Here's an astute observation from a pilot-engineer friend of mine, as timed from the F-35 circus act video: "...my timing indicates the sustained turn rate was only 17 deg/sec. F16s in that configuration are more like 22."
And remember, that sparkling 17 degrees/sec is for a super-light, stripped down F-35. No armed F-35 at an operational airbase could touch that number.”

-- “In performing this supposedly high AoA, low speed pass, Billie Flynn takes an inordinately long time setting up this sequence and the aircraft’s AoA during the pass is considerably less that 50 degrees to the free-stream (looks to be even less than 40 degrees). Somewhat less than the F-22A with its unlimited AoA and significantly less than the Su-35S and Su-50.”

This is not really surprising: the last report on the F-35 by the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test & Evaluation said that “All F-35 variants display objectionable or unacceptable flying qualities at transonic speeds, where aerodynamic forces on the aircraft are rapidly changing. Particularly, under elevated "g" conditions, when wing loading causes the effects to be more pronounced, pilots have reported the flying qualities as "unacceptable."

Not the pilot’s fault, but he was clearly severely limited in what he could do.

-ends-

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