Lockheed Martin test pilot Monessa “Siren” Balzhiser was interviewed a few weeks ago by aviation media journalists about the F-35’s current and future capabilities, differences over the F-16 in SEAD and CAS missions, and other strengths. “We are constantly working to ensure that the aircraft remains relevant not only for today’s combat, but also for future combat,” says Balzhiserová. The diary provides an extract from the interview.
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.
| Photo: Shutterstock
Through the eyes of Jiří VojáčekSource: DiaryMonessa Balzhiserová, who graduated from the Aviation Academy in 2004 of the United Statesis the first female Lockheed Martin trainee to fly the F-35 i F-16. She joined the company in 2018 after serving as an F-16 officer and instructor pilot in the U.S. Air Force for twelve years and having logged 1,800 flight hours (including 320 in combat). Among other things, he flies airplanes in his current position F-35 in support of production and acceptance flights and also provides programmatic and technical support for all standards related to airworthiness and mission readiness of F-16 and F-35 aircraft.
Journalists had the opportunity to meet and interview the “Siren” at the Pratica di Mare Air Base during an air show celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Italian Air Force.
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Monessa, can you tell us what the role of an F-35 test pilot is?
As a test pilot Lockheed Martin’s F-35 we perform a number of tasks for her, but our main job is to be the first to fly the fighter as soon as it rolls off the production line. We test both the aircraft’s systems, which include power generation, cooling system, flight control, landing gear, and mission management systems, which include displays, sensors, and weapons, to ensure that the F-35 is safe and that we’ve built a quality system before, before we hand over the plane.
In addition to flying the F-35, a number of corporate pilots help out F-35 in other places as well, because in addition to Fort Worth, we also have production lines in Italy and Japan. And we help with many technical solutions and airworthiness requirements for multiple business areas depending on what the customer’s needs are.
F-35 test pilot Monessa BalzhiserSource: Courtesy of Lockheed Martin, Public domain
With the aircraft now in service with many nations and gaining combat experience, what kind of testing is required on this platform?
With the aircraft now in service and having some combat experience, I can say that as the F-35 reaches its 1000th delivery, Lockheed Martin is constantly looking for ways to improve the aircraft. We continue to see threats evolve at a rapid pace, so innovations that equip the F-35 with the latest and most advanced capabilities are truly critical to staying ahead of these threats. And whatever kind of testing is required on this platform is done to improve a lot of what the aircraft can already do.
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Some of the latest tests include weapons integration, upgrades, sensors and capabilities specific to Technology Refresh 3, or TR3, aimed at ensuring the F-35 can guarantee security well into the 21st century. We are constantly working to ensure that the aircraft remains relevant not only for today’s fight, but also for future fights.
To what extent do you think we are using the potential of the F-35 aircraft so far? Are we still far from using its full potential?
In my opinion, we are using the full potential of the F-35, but in reality it depends on how each country deploys the aircraft. For the first time, pilots are very surprised by what this aircraft can do. And now, with TR3 approaching, for those customers purchasing this upgrade, the F-35’s potential will only continue to grow. So yes, we’re continuing to maximize the capabilities of the F-35 and I don’t think we’re far from reaching its full potential.
From a test pilot’s perspective, what are the main differences between the three F-35 variants? How noticeable are they in terms of handling, performance and the like…
The main differences between the F-35 variants – A, B and C – are mainly visible in the aircraft’s mechanical systems. A lot of the mission systems inside the fighter, including what we see just by looking into the cockpit, are exactly the same from the pilot’s perspective, except for a few switches.
Some of the differences in the vehicle’s systems include, for example, that Model A and C actually carry more fuel than Model B. Therefore, they have a longer range. The A and C models with internal fuel have a range greater than approximately 1,200 nautical miles, while the B model is greater than approximately 900 miles. The A model is also the only variant with an internal cannon. For other variants, however, we can use external cannons. The A and C models have a larger weapons load capacity (18,000 pounds), while the B model can only really carry 15,000 pounds.
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In terms of flying, I only fly the A model. Other pilots who are qualified in all three variants say there is very little difference in handling, but they are all equally capable in terms of performance. Of course, one thing that is noticeable when we look at the A, B and C variants is that while the A is our most widespread aircraft, the B model can take off and land vertically, the C model has a larger wingspan than the A and B. So in terms of in terms of performance and handling, the C model is generally slightly better precisely because it has longer and larger wings.
F-35 test pilot Monessa BalzhiserSource: Courtesy of Lockheed Martin, Public domain
When describing the F-35, we often talk about datalink, artificial intelligence, machine learning, human-machine interface, and so on. Is any information technology knowledge required to fly and test the F-35 compared to previous generation aircraft?
From pilots before flying or testing the F-35 aircraft they do not require any specific knowledge in the field of information technology. When the F-35 undergoes an upgrade or system update involving IT, pilots work closely with our flight test group and engineers to ensure we have the background information and necessary checklists needed to test the systems. We are also seeing the successful integration of “UI-like” updates such as the Automated Ground Collision Avoidance System (AGCAS). The AGCAS system began to be used on the F-16 aircraft and proved to be critical in saving the lives of the pilots, which led to the integration of the AGCAS system into the F-35 aircraft earlier than planned. We continue to incorporate new technologies and capabilities into the F-35 to stay ahead of new threats, and pilots are constantly working with engineers and developers to ensure a safe and effective product.
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Can you explain something about the electronic warfare capabilities of the F-35 compared to the 4th generation platforms? Are they sufficient for air defense suppression missions? How are we doing with the integration of AARGM-ER anti-radar missiles?
The F-35’s electronic warfare capabilities are a key feature in allowing pilots to operate using sensor fusion. The F-35 sensor suite that needs to be compared to F-16 much more advanced due to how they are integrated into the electronic warfare system, it allows the F-35 to locate and track the radars of enemy forces and actually disrupt attacks. In addition, it provides pilots with a 360-degree missile warning capability. When we compare the F-35 to fourth-generation flying aircraft, of course stealth plays a big role, that’s really one of the big features of fifth-generation capabilities, but electronic warfare also plays a big role.
F-35 (left) and F-16 fighter jetsSource: Wikimedia Commons, Major Ofer, Israeli Air Force, CC0
Regarding SEAD missions and AARGM-ER integration, many pilots have mentioned that the tactics for SEAD missions are changing because of what the F-35 can do. It can reach further into vulnerable places where 4th generation aircraft could not. So that’s a big improvement and a big change in tactical thinking for some of the customers that we’ve talked to that are using this aircraft in some of the SEAD missions. Through integration and interoperability with 4th generation aircraft, 5th generation aircraft can extend the capabilities of older aircraft by transmitting data that they are able to reach from areas that 4th generation aircraft cannot.