Test Flying the F-35: “A Building Block Approach”

The F-35 Pilot: An Interview with Test Pilot “Squirt” Kelly at Pax River

SLD went to Pax River in April 2010 to interview several members of the Pax River test team.

In this interview, Ed Timperlake and Robbin Laird talked with test pilot “Squirt” Kelly about his thoughts on the F-35 experience.

SLD: You’ve been testing the helmet and the plane. What’s the synergy between the helmet and the plane?

Test Pilot “Squirt” Kelly: Well, it is quite a nice synergy, actually. The helmet becomes very natural to the pilot, because it mimics what we have in legacy systems, but it presents it in a way that’s clean and easy to understand, and is the building block for the DAS system, for the night camera, and all of the situational awareness that can be provided to the pilot.

SLD: And you don’t need night vision goggles?

Test Pilot “Squirt” Kelly: You don’t need night vision goggles; it’s all built into the helmet.  So, depending on the conditions — the light levels, environmental factors, and cultural lighting — you may choose to use the night camera or your DAS system, depending on what gives you the best situational awareness.

SLD: And presumably, because if the helmet is spherical, as opposed to using night vision goggles, you have a much better peripheral vision?

Test Pilot “Squirt” Kelly: Yes.  The night vision goggle — the Legacy Night Vision Goggle is just a sensor.  It doesn’t provide you with an integrated picture.  The F-35 night camera as it’s projected in the helmet is really more like using your own vision, rather than looking through a narrow sensor, or soda straw, so to speak.

SLD: There must be a significant adjustment involved when you will start using this in the airplane and figuring out how to use the capability?

Test Pilot “Squirt” Kelly: We think there will be a building block approach, as we integrate more of the capabilities into the aircraft and the helmet.  We saw the same jump in tactics development in the simulator when we first added the helmet capability.  We had to take a step back and rethink some of the ways we were performing the mission, because now we had more information, better information, more situational awareness, and we could be even more efficient and effective at performing the mission with this helmet, with this additional tool that we could use.

SLD: Give me an example of the difference this makes?

Test Pilot “Squirt” Kelly: With the F35, if my wingmen finds a target on the ground, he can data-link that information to me and now my helmet will tell me where to look on the ground to find that target and I know we are looking at the same targetEXACTLY.

SLD: So, in other words, it’s shared information?

Test Pilot “Squirt” Kelly: Yes.  It’s shared information and the helmet will tell the pilot where to employ sensors and weapons while providing threat information. You get more awareness, throughout your flight, on friendly and enemy positions.  So you have shared situational awareness across the board to understand who are the friendlies, the hostiles, what the order of battle is, and what the current situation on the ground is real time.

SLD: Presumably, another aspect is depending on what the ground situation is or what you’re looking at and how rapidly you have to make a decision, you’re also building a consensus between you and your mate on what you think you’re seeing?

Test Pilot “Squirt” Kelly: Absolutely.

SLD: So you have confidence you’re looking at the same thing?

Test Pilot “Squirt” Kelly: Absolutely.  Between you, your wingmen, and the ground.

SLD: So presumably, in an era where we’re very concerned with collateral damage, this builds into a better consensus about what you’re looking and what needs to be prosecuted?

Test Pilot “Squirt” Kelly: That consensus allows for not only a safer, but more rapid employment of weapons with less potential for collateral damage.

SLD: So situational awareness, which you guys often talk about, is a higher sense of confidence in the decision you’re about to take.  And also, presumably one of the advantages is going to be your ability to share this information to a ground decision-maker as well rapidly.  So obviously over time, you’re going to get a better ability to manage, in terms of ground stations, the kind of information that we’re talking about here.

Test Pilot “Squirt” Kelly: Yes, based on the information you and your wingmen obtain, you can make timely decisions more effectively as a team, and rapidly pass that information to the ground without relying on other assets.

As you add the F-35, you are going to reshape other capabilities on the battlefield as well, and provide the foundation for managing battlefield assets, UAVs, intelligence, and other tactical information.  The F-35 will change the way we think about the role of tactical aviation.

SLD: Clearly, there is a cultural challenge to learn how to maximize the impact of the F-35 and to adjust con-ops?

Test Pilot “Squirt” Kelly: Yes.  But one of the things we made sure of with the F35 was that it is and will be compatible with Legacy systems, like link 16. Legacy platforms of U.S. and various nations are going to be around for quite a number of years.  The F35 will have the ability to interact with those platforms in a large force coalition CAOC environment where there are multiple platforms and multiple services.  And then also provide the ability to have a separate communication system that’s designed for low observable aircraft, which provides the flexibility to operate differently and more independently.

SLD: I assume that the F-35 will be able to operate more effectively in airspace from the pilot’s point of view?

Test Pilot “Squirt” Kelly: One of the other great things about the F35 is that it is a first day of the war airplane, but not just a first day of the war airplane.  So in those situations where have to support Marines on the ground in a rapidly changing environment, the F35 will be able to safely operate in that environment because of its sensors and the threat information is presented to the pilot.

In a high-threat, close air support environment, the F-35, through the helmet, will enable the pilot to focus on employing weapons on time, on target, while giving you the information to avoid threats where that’s possible, or defeat those threats where that’s necessary to perform the mission.  And the helmet is the key to getting the pilot looking in the right direction.  We all know a picture is worth a thousand words, so, hearing something is nice, but being able to see it on the ground in relation to the battlefield really builds the pilot’s knowledge and awareness.

SLD: So enhancing the probability of looking at the right thing?

Test Pilot “Squirt” Kelly: Yes.  Whether it’s friendly or hostile, and then having the aircraft, through the helmet, alert the pilot to what action he needs to take in a particular scenario, to either avoid or defeat that threat and then perform the mission.  In a legacy aircraft, depending on what that threat is, you may have to abort your mission.  You wouldn’t have the real time situational awareness of all the threats, so there could be confusion about whether I can still perform my mission, how safe is it to continue.  I will have to abort missions in a legacy aircraft that I will continue in an F-35.

SLD: Tactically, the big deal used to be to get your opponent to jettison his ordinates.  To react to you, he punches everything off, and you’re fighting and you want to kill him if you can’t get the silver scar, but at least you’ve stop your opponent from doing something ugly to your guys.  And they’re telling you, basically, you’re not going to throw anything over the side, you’re going to press on with the fight, with enough confidence that you — to the best of the ability of humanity to survive a fight and get the mission done.

Test Pilot “Squirt” Kelly: With this aircraft, I could take off, and after employing weapons on my primary target, my wingmen or someone on the ground can say okay, I’ve got another threat over here, can you provide me some information.  Instantly, you can become a flying ISR platform, and adjust to provide the context for that ground commander.  So even after employing your weapons, which was your initial goal, you can continue maximizing your capabilities.

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***Posted on May 28th, 2010

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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