What’s it like to fly an F-35 fighter jet? Test pilot answers questions

The F-35 is the fifth-generation aircraft considered the best in the world and is the tip of the spear for both the US and Israel.

 AN F-35 jet. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
AN F-35 jet.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

How does it feel to fly the F-35, the fifth-generation combat and intelligence-collection platform that is currently the best aircraft on the planet and the tip of the spear for both the US and Israeli air forces?

Tony “Brick” Wilson is an F-35 test pilot for Lockheed Martin, which produces the aircraft.

Previously, he served in the US Navy and was the first pilot to land an F-35C on an aircraft carrier.

Flying the F-35: The best aircraft on Earth

Questioned on Wednesday in a webinar organized by Lockheed Martin about what it is like to cope with the g-forces (gravitational forces) that hit the pilot while flying the F-35, he responded, “It’s like an 800-pound gorilla sitting on your chest.”

Aircraft-to-aircraft “dog fighting” is like a full-body workout, and “you are wiped out” at the end, he said.

An Israeli Air Force F-35 during Operation Breaking Dawn, August 2022 (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
An Israeli Air Force F-35 during Operation Breaking Dawn, August 2022 (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

Wilson was next asked about how far the F-35 could fly.

Each of the F-35’s three variants carry different fuel levels, with F-35A (closest to the version that Israel uses) carrying 18,000 pounds of fuel, the F-35B carrying about 13,000 pounds of fuel and the F-35C carrying almost 20,000 pounds of fuel, he said.

Furthermore, that aircraft can burn fuel faster, “depending on the mission and how much afterburner you are using,” he added.

As a general rule, the plan would be to fly no more than “500 to 700 nautical miles, execute a mission and then travel back” to base, Wilson said.

Monessa “Siren” Balzhiser is also an F-35 test pilot for Lockheed Martin and has flown more than 1,800 hours in the T-6, T-38C, L-39, F-16 and F-35, with over 320 combat hours. Prior to joining Lockheed, she served in the US Air Force.

In the webinar, Balzhiser also addressed the question about dealing with g-forces.

“Your average roller-coaster pulls about three to four g’s [g-forces] max [maximum],” she said. “For a g-force, think about your weight. So if you were 100 pounds, pulling 9 g’s, you would be pulling 900 pounds of force on a person’s body. Imagine that much pressure on your body. It takes a lot of training and special training.”

After some training, pilots come out looking like they are 100-years-old,” she added.

Having flown many other aircraft, Balzhiser said what she most valued about the F-35 is “the amount of information and situational awareness that the F-35 gave me in comparison to the F-16.”

“The F-16 has three separate screens and displays, with each screen tied to a specific sensor,” she said. “The pilots needed to do sensor fusion in their brain to take the information, think about it and come up with a solution. The F-35’s large graphic display does that [and] provides that situational awareness faster than what I was able to do in the F-16.”

Likewise, Wilson said the F-35’s advanced sensors that remove the need for the pilot to perform various calculations “allows us to be tacticians in the cockpit.”

Moreover, the F-35 is not only great at “legacy missions” of air offensives and counter-air-defense and suppression and destruction of enemy defenses, but that it is “outstanding at intelligence and reconnaissance” collection from enemy forces, he said.

The pilots did not answer more specific operational questions, such as how the F-35 might handle challenges from the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system.

There are concerns that Russia might send the S-400 system to Iran, which could complicate any future potential strike by Israel’s F-35s on Tehran’s nuclear facilities.