The F-35 that’s supposed to form the backbone of the western world’s air forces for the next couple decades already has an awkward reputation, having been publicly maligned as over budget and underperforming. We still don’t know everything about the jet, but the Joint Strike Fighter is looking pretty impressive in this video that just popped up on Instagram.
In the video, an F-35 enters a steep climb, until the aircraft is flying ninety degrees straight up. The pilot pitches the nose back again, briefly flying level and inverted, then nearly completes a loop. At one point the F-35’s nose is pointed in the opposite direction of the aircraft’s direction of travel. The jet stalls and momentarily appears to hover in midair. The fighter appears to enter a flat spin, falling at an alarming rate, then straightens out and zooms away:
The clip was uploaded to Instagram by Captain Andrew “Dojo” Olsen, lead pilot and commander of the U.S. Air Force’s F-35 Demonstration Team, and was apparently taken at the F-35 Demo Team’s home at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. The Demo Team is working on a routine showing off the F-35’s aerobatic skills, reportedly to start at the Melbourne Air & Space Show.
We have one question: what took the Pentagon so long to release a video like this? The F-35 has been dogged by controversy for more than a decade, including charges it “can’t dogfight.” The F-35 has been initial operations capable (meaning that it’s cleared to perform limited combat operations such as dropping laser and satellite-guided bombs and firing air-to-air missiles) for three years. The world F-35 fleet has racked up more than 100,000 flight hours without so far as a public hint of this sort of agility. Why did it take this long to even hint at the jet’s true maneuverability?
Is what we see in the video a sign the jet is a killer in air-to-air combat? Yes and no. The clip is a distilled shot of the jet’s overall agility, and some moves, like the flat spin, are not useful in combat. F-35 advocates have always emphasized that the jet is designed to kill aerial opponents before the enemy has a chance to force a dogfight, beyond visual range, where its stealth, sensors, and networking capabilities would allow it to see the enemy first and then set up an ambush. Still, the enemy gets a say in the matter (the Vietnam War was a classic example of the “oh, everything will be beyond visual range” thinking meeting a hard reality) and jets such as the Russian Su-35 would attempt to force F-35 pilots into dogfights. If and when that happens, maneuverability will be a powerful factor.
We don’t know what the complete F-35 routine will look like, and how many more surprises it will hold. We do know that, according to the team’s own web site, the routine will last 13 minutes, showing off the jet’s “speed, agility, and high G turning.”
Previous F-35 demos have been comparatively boring, lacking the sort of incredible maneuvers shown on the Instagram clip. Here’s a solo flight from the 2018 Royal International Air Tattoo at Farnborough, UK:
But now the wider public might be getting a real shot at seeing how it can handle.