Wings Magazine

“F-35 most sophisticated aircraft ever”: Flynn

Aug. 17, 2012, Abbotsford, B.C. - Due to receive the first aircraft in 2016, Canada’s F-35 program remains on track in spite of marked controversy – and rest assured this aircraft is like nothing that has flown before.

August 17, 2012  By Paul Dixon

Due to receive the first aircraft in 2016, Canada’s F-35 program remains on track in spite of marked controversy – and rest assured this aircraft is like nothing that has flown before. That was the message from the Lockheed Martin team to Wings during a sit-down at last weekend’s Abbotsford International Air Show.

Billy Flynn, the first Canadian to fly the F-35, describes it as the most sophisticated aircraft ever built. Flynn, a 23 year veteran of the RCAF, is now a senior experimental test pilot with Lockheed Martin on the F-35 project. During his time with the RCAF, Flynn flew CF-18s, commanding the Canadian Task Force in operations over Kosovo. After retirement from the RCAF, he was a test pilot for EADS on the Typhoon and Tornado aircraft.


Flynn says that people don’t understand how far along the project is. There are more than 40 aircraft flying, all three variants, and the 100th aircraft is on the production line. As they come off the assembly line in Fort Worth, Tex., the test pilots put them through their paces. Two days before talking to me, Flynn had taken a plane right off the line and flown it twice that day for a total of three hours, with only a short break for fueling.

“Everything worked, everything in the airplane worked, from the time I turned it on to the end of the second flight,” he said.
“You would never have seen this in my experience as a Typhoon test pilot or in my experience with the early F-18, with the F-16 or the F-22 Raptor. This kind of stability and robustness in the most sophisticated airplane ever.”


When new pilots fly the F-35 for the first time, they will be solo all the way as there is no two-seat version for instruction. All instruction will be accomplished on the simulator and Flynn’s experience from day one speaks to the soundness of that concept. “It’s the best airplane I’ve ever flown in formation. I’ve flown more than 80 airplanes in my life, I got in it the first day and it was rock solid. It is flawless to land, thanks to all the work we did to develop the flight controls for the navy version which teaches us how the flight controls work in all models. It is the easiest airplane to land, ever. On my first flight, the only surprise was my first landing, I didn’t know I was on the ground until the throttle back drove on its own. That was the only thing that surprised me. Everything else was exactly what I thought I would see after the simulator work.”

Training on the simulator can start long before the aircraft are delivered to the active squadrons, meaning that when the pilots do step into the aircraft on the first day they will already have a high level of skill and confidence in the aircraft and its systems. Flynn points out that historically as a new generation of aircraft are introduced, the pilots initially are restricted to flying them the only way they know how, like the older aircraft they replaced. As a young CF-18 pilot he recalls, “we started with F-5 tactics and F-101 tactics and F-104 tactics and we stumbled for the first couple of years until we adapted to what had been learned by [USAF] F-15s, people that were ahead of us. When you’re talking about the F-35 world, we’re going to leverage right off the bat what the Raptor does and those kinds of tactics, we’re going to start off much more people, much smarter people.”

Steve O’Bryan, VP of Business Development on the F-35 team, is enthused about the maintenance systems and the overall reliability of the aircraft. The design requirement of the F-35 is that it will be twice as reliable as the most recent F-18C or F-16C. “These aircraft have great reliability and our design spec is to be twice as reliable,” he said. O’Bryan went on to describe how maintenance for the F-35 will be predictive, rather than reactive as with current aircraft. “If you look at the F-22, F-16, or F-18 you have a diagnostic system and if something breaks the diagnostic system identifies what is broken. What the F-35 has is a Prognostic Health Management System. The idea is to get enough sensors around the airplane and with data base management and all the data deciphering, they are able to predict the failure of a component before it actually happens.” The idea is to work towards scheduled maintenance activity rather than unscheduled maintenance. The value proposition is, as O’Bryan points out, that “when you’re in the field or you’re on an active-duty squadron, what you really want to avoid is unscheduled maintenance. Scheduled maintenance in a phased sense is easier to deal with and easier to manage.”

Just as the pilots have to grow into the next generation of aircraft, there are the reservations of aviators of the previous generation(s) that the pilots of today and tomorrow won’t measure up. Flynn puts the blocks to that thinking. “I was one of the first C-18 pilots. They worried we wouldn’t be as good as the pilots before us, wouldn’t be as talented, wouldn’t be as lethal. We went to war three times in my era in the F-18 and everybody acquitted themselves pretty darned well. I think it’s a different kind of fight you’re going to fight [in the future]. You still have to have flying skills, you have to have analytical skills, and you’re going to have the courage and character to take that step across the line into enemy territory just like every other pilot did in all the generations before us.”

What do the pilots of today think waiting for their opportunity to fly the F-35? The last word from Flynn: “The young guys are really excited – they get it, they really get it.”   


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