Polish pilots who have completed the F-35 simulator trainings in the USA tell us about the capabilities of fifth-generation fighters.
The contract to procure fifth-generation F-35A Lightning II aircraft does not only cover the purchase of 32 fighters, logistics, a stationary training system and spare parts, but also the training of 24 pilots and 90 workers (engineers and flight personnel). The pilots will be taught by American instructors in places such as Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, while engineers will learn at a base in Florida. The candidates have not been selected yet, but the experts say there is still time for that. The Ministry of National Defense is working on determining the requirements the pilots and technicians will have to meet to begin the F-35 training. According to the contract signed with Lockheed Martin, the aircraft for Poland will be produced in 2024, and the training of the personnel qualified for the program will start a year earlier.
Getting to Know the Machin
“We will set the requirements for the candidates only after having prepared a concept for the functioning of the F-35 in the Polish Armed Forces and having learned the new technology well. Obviously, in the case of pilots, we will take into account the appropriate number of flight hours on jet aircraft and a high level of English,” explains BrigGen Pilot Ireneusz Nowak, the commander of the 2nd Tactical Aviation Wing. The motivation to work and the will to develop professionally will also be considered. “The pilots will face a challenging, innovative training, so I would like only people with a sense of mission to enter the program. People, who will build foundations for the functioning of the F-35s in Poland,” adds Nowak.
Although the talks regarding personnel are still pending, some steps as regards the F-35 training have already been taken. In 2019, six pilots of the 2nd Tactical Aviation Wing went to the seat of the producer, Lockheed Martin, at Fort Worth in Texas, USA, for introductory simulator trainings. A year later, in December 2020, this time already within the frame of the contract signed with the USA, eight more pilots were sent to the same training. Apart from F-16 pilots, the group included one M-346 Bielik instructor of the 4th Training Aviation Wing. “The course in the USA was not a part of the F-35 training covered by the program, but a brief introduction to the machine,” emphasizes Gen Nowak, who took part in the week-long course in the USA. However, he does not deny that among the pilots who attended the course a few months ago there are potential candidates for the F-35 program. “Personnel decisions have not been made yet, but it’s true that the people who went to the USA were experienced fighter pilots, instructors or candidates for instructors. People, who might be responsible for the properly introducing in our army the TTP – Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures of operation on the new type of fighter,” says the general, adding: “Let’s not forget the F-35 is an advanced, heavy, fast and complicated aircraft, which will be used in the most complex air missions we can currently imagine. So I expect that the first people to face such a challenge must be our most experienced aviators.” According to the assumptions of the program, Americans will first train instructors, who will later be responsible for transferring the knowledge to pilots. In the group of 24 aviators sent to the USA, there will also be group commanders and wingmen.
The first to train on the F-35s will be the F-16 pilots. According to the aviators, this is the best solution, as the machines are similar and thus the transition should be easier. It does not mean, however, that pilots of other types of machines will not train on fifth-generation aircraft in the future. It is possible that pilots of the MiG-29, the Su-22 and the M-346 Bielik will also be sent to the training. The M-346 Bielik aircraft, stationing in Dęblin, are actually intended for advanced training. The first pilots trained on Bieliks in Poland are already flying the F-16s. “I can imagine that in the future we will send to the USA pilots directly after the M-346 training, without experience in flying on the F-16,” admits Gen Nowak. Such solutions are already practiced in the USA. Due to the fact that combat pilots are leaving service and new ones have to be trained quickly, it was decided that pilots earlier trained on the T-6 Texan II and the T-38 Talon will be transferred to the F-35, without going through the phase of training on, for instance, the F-16.
Hard to Slow Down the Beast
The pilots who visited the Lockheed Martin seat in December had an opportunity to train on the F-35 simulators, but also to see the production line. “There was an F-35 standing every 50 meters, and the production line was a mile long. It was incredible,” emphasizes M., an officer of the 2nd Tactical Aviation Wing (the names of some people from the aviation personnel are not revealed to the public). “When we entered the F-35 simulator center, I felt like a Star Wars hero or a character in a very advanced computer game,” he adds. The pilot is 30 years old and has spent over 900 hours in the air. He has graduated from the Aviation High School in Dęblin and an American aviation academy. He began theoretical and practical combat aircraft pilot training several years ago in the USA. He has flown on the T-6, the T-38C Talon and finally, the multirole F-16, at Tucson Air Force Base in Arizona. Currently, he is a commander of an F-16 flight and he is preparing to become an instructor. Will he pilot an F-35 in the future? “I don’t want to jinx it! But if I get such an offer from my superiors, I surely won’t hesitate,” he says.
During their week in Texas, the Polish pilots practiced on various types of simulators. Some of them had a chance to train on a full motion simulator, which feels exactly like flying a fighter. “I learned that the F-35 doesn’t easily lose speed, doesn’t generate excessive aerodynamic resistance, so it’s hard to slow this beast down in the air,” emphasizes Gen Nowak. “It’s very nice to pilot, it’s great for dynamic maneuvers. With high angles of attack, it doesn’t lose steerability and remains fully controllable,” adds J., a future F-16 aircraft group commander.
Everyone trained in a room equipped with eight training stations: four full mission simulators with a perfect replica of the cockpit, and four slightly simplified simulators which nevertheless also enable the trainees to practice the use of avionic equipment and work in the cockpit. “Every day, we had two simulator sessions. Eight pilots were training simultaneously and the complexity of the air missions grew with every training session,” emphasize the aviators. At the beginning, they practiced easy dogfights, launching rockets, bombing targets on the ground. Later, they trained flying in formations of four aircraft, searching for ground-based targets using radars and bombing them. Finally, they executed an air operation in two flights of aircraft. While one part of the group was fighting the enemy in the air, the others had to break the anti-aircraft defense system. Every simulator training was recorded and later discussed in a debriefing. In between trainings, the pilots attended lectures organized specially for them by Lockheed Martin engineers, pilots of Luke Air Force Base and simulator instructors. They mainly concerned the use of fifth-generation fighters. The lecturers talked about the use of sensors, tactics and planning air missions, among other things. “»Wow!« was my first reaction when I sat inside a simulator. In the F-16 we have two small MFDs which can barely squeeze in all necessary tactical information, a multitude of buttons and switches, and here, in the F-35, there is nothing analogous, just one big high resolution touch screen where all necessary information is displayed. The pilot can freely configure and divide the screen into smaller portals according to mission requirements and own preferences,” says M.
The 2nd Wing commander admits the cockpit is really impressive, but the operational capabilities of the F-35 are the most important thing. “Apart from a radar, the aircraft is equipped with numerous sensors which work in infrared or collect data on electromagnetic radiation from various sources: enemy anti-aircraft systems, shipborne and ground radars. It also collects reconnaissance data with its electro-optical equipment. Importantly – due to advanced data transmission, the aircraft continuously exchange information between one another in real time without absorbing the pilot’s attention in the process. When the pilot receives information coming from multiple sources, it is already initially processed and interpreted,” adds the general.
The aviators emphasize it is incredibly useful, as the F-35 gives recommendations, suggests solutions. “We can, for instance, point the radar to an anti-aircraft system on the ground, or let it find and recognize the target on its own. The situation is the same in the case of another machine present in the air. The F-35 not only informs us about another aircraft, but also immediately recognizes its type,” explains an F-16 pilot. The aviators really appreciate the solutions used in fifth-generation machines, such as a series of cameras installed around the fuselage, which enable the pilots to control the situation below the aircraft using a helmet-mounted display screen.
Different Generations, One Goal
“Our stay in the USA helped us understand the role of a fifth-generation wingman,” say the airmen. Usually, the wingman’s main role is to cover his commander, but here, the tasks of such aircraft are much more extensive. Advanced fighters do not perform tasks in close vicinity, so they can be more autonomic and make own decisions in real time.
The aviators admit that despite the complexity of the F-35 systems, the training was very pleasant. “Obviously, at the beginning you feel a little overwhelmed with the amount of new knowledge, but the use of symbols in the cockpits of both Fs and the way of handling HOTAS are the same. Experience gained in the USA reinforces my belief that the process of training for the F-35 will be shorter than that for the F-16 from several years ago,” emphasizes the commander of the 2nd Tactical Aviation Wing.
The soldiers have high expectations towards the fifth-generation aircraft. They point out that the new fighters will significantly increase Poland’s defensive capabilities. “The F-35 collects a huge amount of information which can be used to the advantage of the fighter, its group, but can also be transferred to other entities on the battlefield – ships, ground-based command posts, other aircraft, including fifth-generation fighters,” says Gen Nowak, adding: “Because of that, when introducing the F-35s into service, we have to make sure not to create a wide gap between the fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft. I don’t want to have two worlds of the old and the new in the air forces. I really want to integrate the Fs, as the cooperation between them will have enormous influence on the effectiveness of the Polish Air Force.”
autor zdjęć: Bumble Dee / Shutterstock, Thinh D. Nguyen / Lockheed Martin, Anthony Nelsoon / USAF, Lockheed Martin