From the archive: November 1991
Editor’s note: The RAF’s Squadron Leader Chris Topham climbed into the Nighthawk’s cockpit in April 1991.
UK Pilot Takes “Psychology Lesson” at Controls of F-117A Stealth Fighter
Flying USAF’s F-117A stealth fighter is a lesson in psychology rather than aerodynamics. It requires the pilot to abandon human senses completely and allow electronic instruments to work in their absence, according to a British officer who is flying that once-secret aircraft under an exchange program between DoD and the UK Ministry of Defense.
In fact, two UK pilots have flown the F-117A Stealth fighter under the Pentagon’s foreign officer exchange program.
Having flown the F/A-18 Hornet, the AV-8B Harrier II and the Mirage 2000 in addition to the Jaguar, Topham said he would rather be flying the F-117A not only because of the privilege, but because of the aircraft’s performance and capabilities compared to conventional US and European fighters.
“With most aircraft you get the feeling of speed and acceleration, but with this one there is very little sensation of speed,” he said. “You can’t really hear the wind [as you can] in most other aircraft. And since we usually fly at night, you can’t see anything whizzing by that would give you some reference to judge your speed by, which means you have to fly on instruments most of the time.”
Topham said the difference is apparent on takeoff, but once the aircraft is in the air, flying the F-117A is not too different from flying most other aircraft. He praises its “beautifully harmonized design, ” noting that it “is as maneuverable as any other aircraft I’ve flown. In fact, it’s surprisingly agile.”
“If you compare it to the Jaguar, the Jaguar is much more the flying aircraft,” he stated. “By that I mean you’re actually flying it every second. It’s a high-intensity job because there is no autopilot. The F-117A is actually a very easy aircraft to fly, and it’s so capable that between target runs it’s much less intense and busy then the Jaguar. Most other airplanes have the pilot monitoring everything — even air threats. But because of the stealthiness, we can concentrate on weapons to the exclusion of everything else.”