The Air Force's trillion-dollar jet lost a dogfight to an aircraft from the 1970s

In a mock dogfight over the Pacific Ocean, a test fight for Lockheed’s F-35 Lightning II, the most expensive weapon in U.S. history, the F-35 was bested by America’s trusty F-16 Fighting Falcon – first flown in 1974.

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A June 29th post on the War Is Boring blog quoted an unnamed test pilot who described the plane as “cumbersome.” Other comments include:

  • “Even with the limited F-16 target configuration, the F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement”
  • “Insufficient pitch rate”
  • “Energy deficit to the bandit would increase over time”
  • “The flying qualities in the blended region were not intuitive or favorable”
  • “Instead of catching the bandit off-guard by rapidly pull aft to achieve lead, the nose rate was slow, allowing him to easily time his jink prior to a gun solution”

According to the Daily Mail Online, the dogfight was held in January near Edwards Air Force Base in California, and was supposed to test the fighter’s close range combat ability between 10 and 30,000 feet. The F-35’s performance was so bad, it was deemed “inappropriate for fighting other aircraft within visual range.”

The specially designed, custom made, most advanced helmet ever was designed to give F-35 pilots a full 360-degree view around the plane but the cramped cockpit wouldn’t allow the pilot to move his head to see his rear, which allowed the F-16 to sneak up behind him.

Essentially, the F-35 pilot couldn’t watch his six because his helmet was too big.

The F-16 is still very much in service while the F-35 is in testing phases but for $59 billion spent in developing the fighter and $261 billion spent in procuring it, not to mention the cost of operations and sustainment ($590 billion in 2012 alone), a taxpayer might think there would be more bang for the billions of bucks spent. So does Congress. The only ones who love the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program are the Pentagon and probably Lockheed-Martin, the manufacturer. Currently, the fighter is best known for catching on fire during takeoff.

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According to the Washington Post, Pentagon officials fired back, saying the plane the test pilot flew “did not have its special stealth coating… the sensors that allow the F-35 pilot to see the enemy long at long ranges… or the weapons and software that allow the F-35 pilot to turn, aim a weapon with the helmet, and fire at an enemy without having to point the airplane at its target.”

The F-35 was previously reviewed as “double inferior to Russian and Chinese” fighter designs in a RAND Corporation briefing (based on research by two former fighter pilots) in 2008. Other comments include: “Inferior acceleration, inferior climb, inferior sustained turn capability. Also has lower top speed.”

C.W. Lemoine, author and former fighter pilot, took to Fighter Sweep, a blog written by and for military aviators, to defend the F-35 and explain why framing the F-35’s performance as a dogfighting loss is “garbage”

“The reality is that we don’t know where each deficiency was found. My guess is the critiques on the pitch rates for gunning and abilities to jink happened in the canned offensive and defensive setups. But one has to remember this is a test platform and they were out to get test data, not find out who the king of the mountain is.”

Lemoine still acknowledged the helmet issue as a legitimate problem, saying “Lose sight, lose the fight.”

In the Daily Mail story, Marine Corps Lt Gen. Robert Schmidle said the F-35 “could detect an enemy five to 10 times faster than the enemy could detect it.” Which is a good thing because right now, the F-35 pilots will need that time and distance to actually be able to hit the enemy.

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