Special Report: Seeking lessons for eVTOL pilot training in the F-35

The eVTOL industry has pointed to the F-35B as a model for how to train pilots in VTOL aircraft that lack dual controls. But what exactly does it take to make this model work?

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Release Date
March 14, 2024
Special Report: Seeking lessons for eVTOL pilot training in the F-35

I’m at the controls of an F-35 flight simulator, preparing to land my virtual F-35B on the simulated deck of the USS Wasp (LHD-1) multipurpose amphibious assault ship. Thirty minutes ago, I had never seen the cockpit of a Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, let alone touched the controls, but by this point I have performed a roll at 35,000 feet, flown a short take-off from the same deck where I am now about to set down, and burnt through thousands of pounds of imaginary jet fuel while puttering around in a hover.

The fact that I have done all of this without incident — and now proceed to land safely on the deck of the Wasp — is a testament to the expert instruction of my simulator operator, Robert Parlett. But it also demonstrates how simple the aircraft is to fly. Designed with augmented fly-by-wire flight controls and envelope protections, the F-35 does not require its pilots to have much feel or finesse. Flying it is a largely procedural affair, and Parlett readily talks me through the necessary procedures.

The simulator session is part of my visit to the Patuxent River F-35 Integrated Test Force (PAX ITF) at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, where I have come to learn something about the future of electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft. The F-35B is the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the F-35 fifth-generation strike fighter, and it uses a unified flight control scheme that was originally tested on a modified Harrier jump jet, the Vectored-thrust Aircraft Advanced Control (VAAC) Harrier. In 2015, when California-based Joby Aviation was contemplating control schemes for its novel eVTOL aircraft, it too drew on the lessons of the VAAC Harrier in electing to use unified controls.

Related: Newly proposed FAA rules could create eVTOL pilot training hurdle

The F-35 is a single-seat fighter, so pilots train in simulators before going solo in the real thing. Joby, counting on being able to use a similar training model, designed its weight-sensitive electric aircraft with a single pilot station, and many other eVTOL developers — including Archer Aviation, Eve Air Mobility, Lilium and Vertical Aerospace — have since followed suit. In June 2023, however, the Federal Aviation Administration published proposed rules for powered-lift pilot certification that would require these companies to develop a version of their aircraft with fully functioning dual controls — a costly exercise that would impose the greatest burden on the companies closest to certification, including Joby.

The continued existence of the F-35B is proof that it is eminently possible to train pilots for safe operations in a single-seat aircraft, even one with vertical flight characteristics that differ significantly from what they have flown before. What I sought to understand is what exactly about the aircraft and its training program have made this model a success. Is it the design of the flight controls? The quality of the simulators? The structure of the training program? The answer, I learned, is all of the above — plus one additional element that speaks to the role of the professional pilot in an era increasingly defined by automation.

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