[This article is the first of a two-part series devoted to the Top Gun movies. Our second article, ‘The Glory Days of Top Gun’, is in our July 2022 issue, on sale now]
We can only tell you his code name (‘H’) and cannot show you his face – but if you want to become a fighter pilot, in this exclusive interview one of the first British pilots to qualify on the F-35 will tell you what it takes to become one of Britain’s ‘Top Guns’
Q: Can you tell us briefly about your path? How did you get into the military, and what training did you go through?
A: I joined the Royal Navy (RN) straight from secondary school. In the UK there are two routes to join the military as a pilot, one straight from A-levels, and one after Uni. I applied when I was seventeen. Once accepted, I started at the military college at Darmouth in Devon, doing my Royal Navy initial officer training.
After that I started flight training on the Grob Tutor. That is where you learn the foundation of military flying. You do circuits, emergencies, you fly solo, you learn aerobatics, formation flying, and low level navigation. The whole course culminates in a low level nav while in formation. Then, your training class is split into either fast jet or rotary – or, for the RAF, also multiengine. At this point I was really hoping to fly F-35s and I was lucky enough to be selected for the fast jet route.
Q: So at that point you were selected to be a fighter pilot. What happened next?
A: I went to train at Linton – on – Ouse on the Tucano, and it was a big jump from the Tutor. The Tucano has amazing performance, it flies like a warbird. This part of the course, which lasted about nine months, was about learning to fly a turboprop with retractable gear, and improving your low level navigation. Finally, I was sent to RAF Valley for advanced fast jet training on a Hawk. And that was another jump on the learning curve: suddenly you go from maxing out at 240kt on a Tucano to a jet that wants to fly at 350kt as soon as it gets airborne. I remember the first nav on a Hawk, flying low level at 420kt. I was used to fly the Tucano at 230kt, and I felt like I was in a tunnel time warp, like in Star Wars. But obviously it’s only a matter of time before you get used to it.
Q: And what type of flying do you do now?
A: I was actually one the first four British pilots to be sent for ab-initio training on the F-35. I went to South Carolina, where I trained with the US Marine Corps to fly the aircraft. Then we came back to the UK, and now I’m in a joint squadron with the RAF based at Marham. So, it is a land-based squadron, but obviously we regularly deploy to the aircraft carriers.
Q: If one of our young readers wants to become a fighter pilot, how can they best prepare?
A: It’s important to do well at school, and particularly in science and maths. Being quick at doing calculations helps a lot in flying. Nowadays it’s also important if you are good at working with electronics and computers. Flying the F-35 is almost like playing a computer game while flying a fast jet, and there is definitely an advantage in being familiar with computers. Even playing videogames will help you manage all of the switches that you have on a fast jet, while looking at different screens and flying the aeroplane at the same time.
There’s also a very important motivational aspect to it. There were times during training when the whole thing seemed almost too daunting. But I used to think that, ultimately, there will be one fighter pilot sitting in that F-35, and why shouldn’t that be me? That kept me motivated. It’s a long road, but you can make it if you take one step at a time.
Q: Besides school, what are the things that you learned in normal life that help you most in your job today?
A: For this job, you need to be able to compartmentalise, to focus on the task at hand. That is a skill that is particularly difficult to develop today, because everyone is constantly bombarded by messages left right and centre, from social media, their smartphone, their TV and so forth. Everyone wants your attention, but as a fighter pilot you need complete mastery of your concentration, because you are managing many different systems at the same time. You need a clear mind, a mind that understands what needs to be done next, that is able to concentrate on the task at hand, and that can set aside what is not needed at the time.
Q: How long does it take from joining the military to the time when you are flying operationally on the front line?
A: Taking everything into consideration, including when you are not flying during initial officer training, it takes about four and half years.
Q: On arrival at your first squadron, how many flying hours did you have? And how many of those were in the sim?
A: In terms of military flying I had about 400 hours. Of those, about 100 were on the Grob, 120 each on the Tucano and the Hawk, and 120 were on the F-35 for the training course. Training on the F-35 was roughly split in half in terms of sim and real flying, so I did about 60 of my F-35 hours in a simulator. I did sim training on the Tucano too, primarily for IFR flying, while on the Grob there was no sim training, we just flew the real aircraft. But I think that is changing now.
Q: How many of the people that joined the military with you you did not make it to fast jets, or to a pilot role?
A: In my case about 60% of the joining class managed to become a pilot. Of those, since we enlisted in the Navy, about one fifth went to fly fast jets, while the remainder was sent to fly helicopters. The split would be different for the RAF.
Q: Sixty per cent of the initial intake making to a pilot role is actually a surprisingly good number
A: The fact is that the military is making a big investment in you from the start, and there is a very big incentive for the MoD in seeing you succeed. So, there is a demanding selection before, but once you are admitted on the course the training is very good, and the military does everything possible to see you come out on the other side.
Q: Fighter pilots used to have a specific set of skills: good at manual flying, healthy and fit, cool under pressure, and so forth. Is the F-35 changing the set of skills required to be a fighter pilot?
A: The ‘traditional’ set of skills is still very much needed. You need to be fit, because it’s a high-performance jet that pulls a lot of Gs. You need to be cool under pressure. And, in terms
of manual flying, I think people would actually be surprised how much it is still relevant in this aircraft. The F-35 is not at all a drone that flies autonomously: stick and rudder skills are still very important. But the new type of skill that you need is being able to manage a very complex electronic system. The stick and throttle alone, for instance, have twenty-four different buttons among them – a system called HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick). And each of those buttons can be used in combination
with another button, so there is a huge amount of options to manage. There are also two large touchscreens, so you are managing all of this while flying a high performance jet. It’s definitely a new set of skills that requires a lot of training. The sim is very helpful in this, as you can get familiar with all the mission management systems on the ground, before you are actually flying.
Q: How different is the life of a real fighter pilot from that portrayed in movies like Top Gun?
A: The flying part is very similar to what you see in the movies, you can’t really cheat on that. And it is amazing flying. What the movies don’t show, though, is all the homework and planning that goes into making a mission successful. Sometimes I spend a whole day, and even more, planning one single mission, and that obviously is not really shown in a film. Another big difference between the movies and real life is that there is no infighting within a Squadron. There can’t be. Everybody is, and must be, part of a team that works together.
Q: Do you have a regular fitness routine? What does it include? And do you do exercises for your mental fitness (eg training for memory, concentration, and stress tolerance)?
A: There is no standard, ‘ordered-from-above’ fitness routine, it is really up to you to meet the standard. Personally, I am quite an outdoorsy person, and I do a fair amount of hiking and running, in addition to some weight training for strength. So, I have a pretty broad, comprehensive fitness routine, but that is not dictated from above. And it is this same routine that also helps me with the mental part. For instance, I find that working out and running are great de-stressors.
In terms of mental health, it is also very important to look at the big picture. It can be very easy to overfocus on a specific problem and get stressed about something small. And it is really when you step back and look at the bigger picture that you realise that something that may look like a problem, does not really matter as much as you thought. [If you are interested in joining the Royal Navy, you can find on its website a four-week physical training programme to help you get into the required shape – Eds]
Q: And what is your diet like?
A: Again, there are not strict guidelines on this, but obviously you are expected to have a healthy and balanced diet. I personally tend to eat primarily a vegan/vegetarian diet, with lots of fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts. My partner likes to bake, so I will also have a piece of cake every now and then.
Q: How do you deal with fear?
A: I think fear is related to the unknown. It is about things that could happen, things that you may not be able to handle, scenarios that could throw you off. So, for me, planning is the biggest antidote to fear. When you plan, you take a lot of the unknown off the table and, with that, a lot of your fears.
Q: Do you have any practical, easy-to-implement advice for General Aviation pilots (eg for flight planning, emergency management etc)?
A: Actually I am a GA pilot myself and I have a fair amount of experience flying privately, as I do fly light aircraft in my spare time. I think the easiest mistake to make for a GA pilot is to leave out the mental preparation of flying. This is especially true today, since you have a lot of tools, like the flight planning apps, that make it very easy to get into a sort of ‘turnkey habit’, where you just show up at the airport, turn the key on, and takeoff with minimal effort. But, for instance, if you spend just five minutes thinking about what you will do if the engine quits, that will make a lot of difference if you are really confronted with the scenario. We do a lot of that in the military, we call it armchair flying. Before every sortie we sit down and think through all the different contingencies and eventualities, thinking ‘what will I do if this or that happens?’ For a GA pilot it doesn’t have to take a lot of time to prepare, but it can make a lot of difference.
Q: Finally, what are your future aspirations?
A: I would like to become a test pilot and, further down the line, help design the next generation of fighter aircraft. It will be a particularly interesting time for that, as there are a lot of questions that will need to be considered. First, obviously the whole world is moving away from fossil fuel, and that is a huge issue for the military, since kerosene is the only way, at least for the foreseeable future, to get the kind of power needed for a fighter aircraft.
Then there is the issue of unmanned flying and artificial intelligence. People often ask me, for instance, if my job will become obsolete, if I can be substituted by a computer, or at least by a drone. But I don’t think so, at least in the short term. The reality is that a drone’s system can be jammed. In addition, it can be operated from thousands of miles away by a human pilot, but that means that every action is delayed, if only a bit. And in terms of Artificial Intelligence (AI), maybe one day we will use it in fighter aircraft, but I think we will be very careful: we need to make sure that the decisions made by AI are sensible. Every flight that I do now requires a number of pretty complex decisions, it is never a case of flying straight from A to B, and it is difficult to say how AI would deal with those scenarios. So, overall the design of the next generation of fighter aircraft will be a particularly challenging and interesting process, and I’d like to be part of that.