In Depth

The Best Seat in the House

January 26, 2017

In 2003, just eight months after Lockheed Martin Aeronautics won the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) contract – what would become the F-35 Lightning II – David “Doc” Nelson joined the F-35 program as a project test pilot. Six years later, with Jon Beesley on his wing as the instructor pilot, he became the sixth pilot to fly the newest and most advanced 5th Generation multirole aircraft in the world. That flight also made him the second pilot ever to fly both the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 (Beesley being the first).

Since these historic flights, Doc has racked up a remarkable number of firsts:

  • The first to fly AF-1, the U.S. Air Force’s first F-35A – an opportunity he felt lucky to have as a retired Air Force fighter pilot
  • The first to fly the F-35 to its maximum angle of attack
  • The first to log an F-35 spin and departure test
  • The first to perform an F-35C air refueling
  • The first to complete an arrested landing in the F-35C variant
  • The first to fire an AIM-9X from the F-35 – and the list goes on.

In addition to all these remarkable flight test milestones, as the author of the first edition F-35 flight manual and pilot checklist, Doc literally wrote the book on the Lightning II. Today, he is the last of those first six pilots to still fly the airplane.

Staying true to his pattern of firsts, Doc recently became the first F-35 pilot to reach 1,000 hours in the jet.

57 Aircraft and Counting

One of his most remarkable memories was the first flight of the U.S. Air Force’s first F-35A.

“We took off on a Saturday morning in November,” he recalls. “The flying qualities of the jet were remarkable and still are – no big changes have been made since that time. It flew like a dream right out of the box. I attribute this to our Control Law engineers, who are geniuses.”

When asked how the F-35 compares to other aircraft he’s flown – there are 56 others – Doc says there’s really no comparison to the previous generation of fighter jets. He notes, too, that through the miracle of dynamic inversion, all three F-35 variants feel about the same in flight. Dynamic inversion is the concept that allows the three F-35 variants to fly the same despite differences in tail and wing sizes and control surfaces. Read more on the F-35 flight control system.

“The jet looks like and handles like the world class fighter plane that it is, but you really can’t visually compare 5th Generation to 4th Generation aircraft,” says Nelson. “When it comes to the Radar Cross Section, it’s impossible to convey the tremendous advantage that stealth gives to a pilot. Yes, the F-35 can put on a stunning airshow, but its miniscule radar cross section is something you can never visually convey.”

Doc describes the experience that 4th Generation pilots have when flying up against the F-35 as frustrating.

“There are two types of pilot who believe in stealth,” he says. “Those who fly 5th Gen… and those who fly against them.”

Doc is confident that the F-35 will bring a whole new capability to the services and countries who operate it.

“The F-35 is frankly a weapon we haven’t seen before. We’ve made multiple military services and countries happy with one airplane. The sensor suite is state of the art. The intuitive display funnels information into the pilot’s eyes so simply that you only need one person to fly it; compared to two for some 4th Generation aircraft flying the same mission.” He adds that the operators he’s spoken to that fly the jet have great admiration for it.

Fly First, Test Second

Doc isn’t alone when it comes to being a former military pilot now in the flight test business. Every Lockheed Martin test pilot flying the F-35 is a military veteran. This makes a difference in the way he approaches his job.

“When I was an active duty fighter pilot, I knew that someone had designed, built and test flown the fighter designs I flew, and did it with my safety and success in mind. Each time we flew we came home safely thanks in large part to the good equipment they produced. Now we’re working on the leading edge of fighter technology that will allow our pilots to penetrate enemy defenses and survive in combat better than anyone has before, and we want to pass down a quality product like we had when we [were in the service].”

So he’s made it his personal mission to pay it forward when it comes to testing and making improvements to the F-35.

“If I have anything to do with it, everyone who flies this airplane into combat will come home,” he says. “That’s my goal.”

He explains how a test pilot’s job is to point out everything that is wrong with the jet, calling himself a “paid complainer.”

“Looking back at how far we’ve come – we started with a very conservative speed and G envelope, now we’ve cleared maximum Mach and G for use by our fleet pilots. The sensors are stable and powerful. The issues we are correcting today are minor in relative terms.”

Despite his impressive resume, Doc continues to insist that it’s all about teamwork when it comes to his success.

“There are many people and teams who have a total commitment to the F-35 – crew chiefs, maintainers, operations desk personnel, schedulers, administrative staff, test conductors, instructional techs and more – they keep things rolling every day. Not to mention the engineers who designed this amazing airplane in the first place. Everyone on this program invests a ton of work – most of them do more than their job description calls for,” Doc says.

“I have a great deal of appreciation for them. As pilots, we are just lucky we get the best seat in the house.”