As part of our Dream Jobs features series, DAVID NOWELL dons his Ray-Bans and experiences life as a fighter pilot, albeit in the simulator.
Call it a flight of fancy, but I’ve always wanted to be a fighter pilot.
But like many young lads, my hopes of becoming a “Top Gun” pilot, a premiership footballer or a globe-trotting multi-millionaire playboy never quite materialised.
Instead, I went from rubbish sixth form student and trainee golf course groundsman to trainee journalist. Despite having several friends in the armed forces, newspapers became my life rather than death-defying supersonic flights in multi-million-pound RAF jets.
Funny how life works out - because if I wasn’t a journalist I would not have got the chance to experience what it feels like to fly a state-of-the art American F-35 fighter plane.
It turns out BAE Systems at Samlesbury, who make part of the F-35s before they are flown out to America for final assembly, have a unique bit of kit.
At the Warton site there is a massive full-wall computer mock-up of one of the new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers and an F-35 simulator.
It’s the only set-up of its kind in the world - and I was invited to try it out.
The first Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier is being built now - and is due to be named by Her Majesty herself at Rosyth, Scotland, on Friday.
The old Harrier Jump Jets which the RAF used from aircraft carriers in the past are to be replaced with the F-35, whcih have a similar vertical landing capability.
So the RAF and BAE Systems have set up the simulator at Warton so pilots know exactly how the F-35 will perform, and how it will land on the new carriers.
The F-35 can carry out a conventional landing or a vertical landing - but no-one has ever tried it for real on the new Queen Elizabeth carriers. The man tasked with finding out the best way to do it is test pilot Lieutenant Commander Barry Issitt. The Royal Navy pilot’s job is to draw up best practice and advise on any snags.
The set-up is stunning. Along a massive wall is a curved screen which shows the deck of a Queen Elizabeth carrier. The detail is stunning - and the operators can simulate night, day, bad weather, anything realistically.
In the adjoining room is the F-35 simulator in front of a similar but smaller curved screen. In the distance is the aircraft carrier - and that’s what you are aiming for.
The F-35s are expected to queue up and land vertically in groups of four. Looks relatively easy in perfect weather - but try doing it in a major storm, or under enemy fire.
Barry’s job is to perfect all scenarios - after all, the lives of the pilots and 1,000 crew on the largest Royal Navy aircraft carriers ever built are at stake.
“There are no two-seater aircraft, so every pilot who is trying this will be experiencing flying it for the first time,” says Barry.
“It is important to make sure that every aspect is rigorously tested.”
The main room features the scene from the carrier’s perspective. The carrier’s air traffic controller has to monitor the landing of each plane - and has the power to order them to abort if anything goes wrong.
BAE Systems’ David Atkinson, who is leading aircraft to ship integration on the F-35 programme, said: “This system is running the same software as the aircraft itself, so it is just about as authentic as it can be.
“The simulator is helping to form policy and best practice for the future.”
The F-35 is a stunning fighter plane, packed with technology. It performs a different function to BAE Systems’ Typhoon and has been chosen as the replacement to the Harrier Jump Jet.
It’s difficult to pin anyone down on exactly how much each plane costs - that depends on the number you buy, the service agreements etc. But it is generally reckoned that you won’t get much change out of £100 million.
Says Barry: “I never ask how much they cost - I don’t want to think about it!
“We all have our favourites - this is very very different to the other planes I have flown. It’s difficult to compare to the Typhoon, but as far as capability is concerned it is better than anything else in production.”
Pilots normally train on the Hawk and then a select few will move up, depending on their skills, to the Typhoon. Even fewer will be able to take the controls of a F-35. Commonly it will take three to five years of flying before progressing to something like the F-35.
“Right,” says Barry. “What it’s taken me six years to learn I’ll try to teach you in 10 minutes.”
He gives me the conducted tour of the simulator’s cockpit and an expert run-through the landing procedure and then it’s my turn.
Clambering into the cockpit, you realise the simulator is frighteningly realistic. You see all the instruments exactly as the pilot would (although it real life some readings would be projected inside the pilot’s helmet).
Some of the classified features have been removed for security reasons and there are no “missiles” for me to unleash on the Lancashire public. Which must be a relief to all concerned.
Sitting there realising you are the controls of the £100m plane is a strange feeling. The sky above you, the sea below, the carrier in the distance all look lifelike. The cockpit is surprisingly stripped down - rudder to the left, joystick to the right.
The controls are very intuitive - the throttle drops into positions like a car’s gear lever. The joystick you could move with two fingers if necessary, without any wild movements.
We’re off, trying to keep speed level and height constant. Barry gives me the controls and we immediately tilt to the right like the amateur that I am.
Moving the joystick to the left, we level off and the fighter hurtles towards the carrier. Barry tells me to nudge the joystick forward, losing height.
The Throttle is gradually eased off. The carrier’s lights are blinking in the distance.
This feels like the best computer game you have every played. It’s a virtual reality experience, and after a while you realise that the plane is so smart it can practically fly itself.
“Don’t ditch in the sea” is the thought going round in my mind. “Hang on, it isn’t real” says another voice. But it feels like it.
Screeching alongside the carrier far too fast, we cut the speed. Amazingly the plan hovers. It doesn’t go right, left or back. It just stays there.
At 100 feet above the sea I am given a landing bay to aim for. Nudging the joystick right, the plane moves sideways like it is on rails, not losing an inch of height.
It is so intuitive it practically parks itself (unlike my battered Peugeot, which has the battle scars to prove it. But that’s a different story).
Over the carrier’s deck, I am told to drop. Another nudge on the joystick and the plane is down with a realistic bump. And that’s it - probably the most advanced fighter plane in the world is down without incident.
Amazingly, it seems like I have the Right Stuff.
I failed miserably in my attempts to become a postman some years ago - being rejected for interview every single time.
But it seems my five O Levels (that’s GCSEs to you younger folk) would not bar me from training as a pilot.
It’s funny old world.
I’m keeping my mobile switched on just in case I get the call.
It can only be a matter of time........