Photos and Story by Tom Demerly and Jan Mack for TACAIRNET.com
The 2016 Cleveland National Air Show on September 3, 4 and 5th was the first civilian air show to host the Lockheed-Martin F-35A Lightening II Heritage Flight Demo Team with both an F-22 Raptor and a P-51 Mustang in formation flight.
The U.S. Air Force F-35A Heritage Flight Team flew with an F-22 Raptor from the Air Combat Command F-22 Demo Team at Langley Air Force Base and the North American P-51 Mustang “Baby Duck”from the Warbird Heritage Foundation of Waukegan, Illinois at Cleveland.
The flight demonstration in Cleveland followed a two-aircraft Heritage Flight at the Chicago Air and Water Show two weeks before on August 19-21 that only featured the F-35A and the P-51.
To date, flight demonstrations of the new USAF F-35A Lightening II have been infrequent since the aircraft only reached IOC (Initial Operating Capability) with the U.S. Air Force on Tuesday, August 2, 2016.
Demos of the F-35A have been flown with relatively low performance profiles compared to the F-22 demo team and other tactical jet demonstration teams partially because of the recent integration of the F-35A into Air Force operational status.
The inclusion of the Air Force F-35A into the Heritage Flight and the air show circuit parallels the successful integration of the F-35A variant into Air Force operational status.
The F-35 program has recently entered a phase of acceleration in demonstrations that included a spectacular display at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) in July with six F-35’s of two variants from three services demonstrating at RIAT. The RIAT display also included a demonstration of the F-35B’s (U.S. Marine and Royal Air Force) STOVL capability in addition to USAF F-35A’s. The USAF F-35A Heritage Flight Demonstration at Cleveland was another display first for the successful program.
One of the concerns about basing locations of the F-35’s across all variants has been noise levels. This demonstration was the first opportunity for many people to hear the F-35A in comparison to other military jets including twin engine F-22 Raptors and twin engine FA-18 Hornets flown by the Blue Angels. The noise level throughout the demonstration in Cleveland seemed no louder than other tactical aircraft. The aircraft does produce a distinctive howling sound from the new Pratt & Whitney F-135 after-burning turbofan engine for short periods in specific flight attitudes relative to the show line.
“You’ll see the F-35 program picking up speed now in all areas, including a big media push” said Air Force Major Will Andreotta, demo pilot for the F-35A that flew at Cleveland. “The aircraft offers an incredible variety of capabilities many media outlets haven’t reported on yet. We’re going to change that in these coming months” Maj. Andreotta, callsign “D-Rail”, told TACAIRNET.com.
Major Andreotta gave us the opportunity to hold and examine one of the F-35A helmets. The helmet, said to cost over $400,000 USD, is a remarkable system.
“It’s not just a helmet, it’s an integrated display that functions with the sensor system to provide a level of control and situational awareness that has never been available to any pilot before.” Major Andreotta told us. “It is easy to get used to since it is scaleable, you can call up capability as you need it, and not use it when you don’t.”
Throughout the weekend demo the Air Force maintained a tent in the show venue where spectators could meet Master Sgt. Ed De Leon Jr., the F-35A Lightning II Heritage Flight team chief from the 56th Fighter Wing, Luke Air Force Base, Arizona along with both F-35A pilots and other personnel supporting the flight demonstration.
The flight demonstration profile on each day featured the P-51 Mustang taking off from the show venue on Lake Erie at Burke Lakefront Airport, performing a brief solo display then exiting the demonstration box for the arrival of the F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team who also performed a solo flight demo but flew out of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, several miles away, where the F-35A demo team was also parked.
The F-35A typically entered the demonstration box airspace from the left (west) of show center and performed a slow pass in review followed by a high performance turn during which the aircraft exceeded 90-degree bank angle. These passes provided excellent views of the F-35A in profile and plan form views from both the top and bottom of the aircraft, giving photographers and spectators a truly remarkable insight into the future of military aviation technology.
Following the entrance pass and introduction of the F-35A by the team announcer the aircraft formed up with the F-22 and P-51 behind the demonstration box and entered again from the right of show center. There were usually two passes, one at a slightly greater distance initially with the subsequent pass flying closer to the crowd line to afford better views and photos.
The Cleveland National Airshow U.S. Air Force F-35A Heritage Flight Demonstration was three days of truly remarkable aviation history before our eyes. Most spectators got their first look at the F-35A at this demonstration and it was apparent the massive crowd of over 100,000 airshow spectators was excited about seeing the F-35A for the first time. While the demonstration itself did not include aerobatics now common with the older F-22 Raptor demo team, the F-35A put on an exciting show that only begins to hint at future successes of the overall F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, a massive program still at its beginning.