Why the F-35 Fighter Jet Is Such a Badass Plane

Date:15 April 2022 Author: Juandre






Refueling under cover of darkness, a massive formation of U.S. Air Force, Royal Air Force, and Australian Air Force aircraft prepared for combat.

Fourth-generation fighters hailing from all three nations—including F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-15 Eagles, and Eurofighter Typhoons—coordinated with E-8 Joint STARS command-and-control aircraft. As their stealthy escorts, both F-22 Raptors and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters surveyed the battle space.

Soon, cockpit displays in each aircraft began to light up and alarms sounded, indicating that the formation was being painted by multiple radar arrays tied to surface-to-air missiles and inbound fighters. Enemy fighters sporting the color schemes of Russian Su-30s began to close in.

“On the last week of a Red Flag exercise we really throw everything we have at the Blue Force and replicate the toughest adversary possible,” says Travolis “Jaws” Simmons, commander of the 57th Adversary Tactics Group.

Ultimately, the F-35 fighter jet won the day, breaking down one of the world’s most advanced air defense networks and relaying the data to missile-packed fighters like the F-16.

The F-35 can fly at speeds as high as Mach 1.6 and can carry an internal payload of four weapons without compromising its stealth. But it’s not the F-35’s firepower that really makes the difference, it’s the computing power. It’s why F-35s have come to be known as “quarterbacks in the sky” or “a computer that happens to fly.”

“There has never been an aircraft that provides as much situational awareness as the F-35,” Major Justin “Hasard” Lee, an Air Force F-35 pilot instructor, tells Popular Mechanics. “In combat, situational awareness is worth its weight in gold.”

But for nearly its entire life, many have debated whether the F-35 is a game-changing platform or a case study in the excesses of the Pentagon’s weapon-acquisition process.

It turns out it’s both.


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The Boeing X-32, left, and the X-35 from Lockheed Martin.


The aircraft we know today as the F-35 was built to meet the demands of multiple fighting forces with a single, highly capable aircraft.

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In the May 2002 issue, Popular Mechanics explored the U.S. Military’s newest fighter: the F-35.


This new “Joint Strike Fighter,” Pentagon officials believed, would allow for streamlined logistical supply lines, maintenance, and training. It would also leverage the same stealth technologies found in the F-22.

With a laundry list of requirements from the U.S. NavyAir ForceDARPA, and soon, the U.K. and Canada, the Joint Strike Fighter program quickly moved from its official proposal in 1995 to two competitive prototypes in 1997: Lockheed Martin’s X-35 and Boeing’s X-32. And the new fighter had its work cut out for it—the Joint Strike Fighter needed to replace at least five different aircraft across all the different services, including the high-speed interceptor F-14 Tomcat and the tank-killing close air support A-10 Thunderbolt II.

While replacing all these aircraft with one plane would (theoretically) save money, the long list of requirements led to a landslide of expensive complications. In fact, while the X-35 was still competing for the contract, many weren’t sure such an aircraft could even be built in significant numbers.

Lockheed Martin’s F-35: The Specs

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A cross-section of the F-35 from the May 2002 issue of Popular Mechanics. Necessary design changes over the years likely altered these original design plans.


Designed from the ground up to prioritize low-observability, the F-35 may be the stealthiest fighter in operation today. It uses a single F135 engine that produces 40,000 lbs. of thrust with the afterburner engaged, capable of pushing the sleek but husky fighter to speeds as high as Mach 1.6. The aircraft can carry four weapons internally while flying in contested airspace, or can be outfitted with six additional weapons mounted on external hardpoints when flying in low-risk environments. The F-35A also comes equipped with an internal 4-barrel 25mm rotary cannon hidden behind a small door to minimize radar returns.

The standard weapons payload of all three F-35 variants includes two AIM-120C/D air-to-air missiles and two 1,000 pound GBU-32 JDAM guided bombs, allowing the F-35 to engage both airborne and ground-based targets. Lockheed Martin has developed a new internal weapons carriage that will eventually allow it to carry an additional two missiles internally.

The cockpit of the F-35 forgoes the litany of gauges and screens found in previous generations of fighter in favor of large touchscreens and a helmet mounted display system that allows the pilot to see real time information. This helmet also allows the pilot to look directly through the aircraft, thanks to the F-35’s Distributed Aperture System (DAS) and suite of six infrared cameras mounted strategically around the aircraft.

“If you were to go back to the year 2000 and somebody said, ‘I can build an airplane that is stealthy and has vertical takeoff and landing capabilities and can go supersonic,’ most people in the industry would have said that’s impossible,” Tom Burbage, Lockheed’s general manager for the program from 2000 to 2013 told The New York Times. “The technology to bring all of that together into a single platform was beyond the reach of industry at that time.”

While both the X-32 and X-35 prototypes performed well, the deciding factor in the competition may have been the F-35’s complicated Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) flight. Because the U.S. Marine Corps intended to use this new plane as a replacement for the AV-8B Harrier Jump Jets, America’s new stealth fighter had to be able to fill the same vertical landing, short take off role.

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The Boeing X-32 prototypes were more unusual looking than its X-35 competition and in many ways, were less advanced. Boeing saw this as a selling point because the legacy systems leveraged in its design were cheaper to maintain. The aircraft used a direct-lift thrust vectoring system for vertical landings that was similar to that of the Harrier. It effectively just re-oriented the aircraft’s engine downward to lift the airframe, making it less stable than the X-35 in testing. But Boeing’s biggest mistake may have been the decision to field two prototypes: One that was capable of supersonic flight, and another that was capable of vertical landings. This decision left Pentagon officials worried about Boeing’s ability to field a single aircraft with all of those capabilities crammed inside a single fuselage.


The lift fan design used in the X-35 connected the engine at the back of the aircraft to a drive shaft that would power a large fan installed in the aircraft’s fuselage behind the pilot. When hovering, the F-35 would orient its engine downward, not unlike the X-32, but it would also pull air from above the aircraft and force it down through the fan and out the bottom, creating two balanced sources of thrust that made the aircraft far more stable.

It also helped the F-35 notch a win in the looks category.

“You can look at the Lockheed Martin airplane and say, that looks like what I would expect a modern, high performance, high capable jet fighter to look like,” Lockheed Martin engineer Rick Rezebek says. “You look at the Boeing airplane and the general reaction is, ‘I don’t get it.’”

Ultimately, Lockheed Martin won out over Boeing’s unusual looking X-32 prototype in October of 2001. The future looked bright for the newly named F-35.


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The F-35 receives a robotic spray of radar-baffling coating along the leading edge of its wing and air intake.


While Lockheed’s lift fan approach to STOVL flight might’ve nabbed the contract, the hard part was just beginning.

Choosing to begin with the least complex iteration of the new fighter, Lockheed’s Skunk Works started designing the F-35A, intended for use in the U.S. Air Force as a traditional runway fighter like the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Once the F-35A was complete, the engineering team would then move on to the more complex STOVL F-35B for use by the U.S. Marine Corps, and then finally, the F-35C, meant for carrier duty.

There was just one problem—jamming all the necessary hardware for the different variants into a single fuselage proved extremely difficult. By the time Lockheed Martin wrapped up design work on the F-35A and got to work on the B, they realized the weight estimates they had established while designing the Air Force variant would lead to an aircraft that was 3,000 pounds too heavy. This miscalculation created a significant setback—the first of many.

Meet the F-35 Variants

To the outside observer, the differences between each F-35 variant can be difficult to detect— and for good reason. The only real differences among each iteration of the jet are related to basing requirements. In other words, the most noticeable differences are in how the fighter takes off and lands.

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