Getting to grips with the navy’s jets of the future

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YOU can soar through the air at supersonic speed, take down enemy fighter jets and spin off in a victory roll in triumphant style.

But you needn’t actually leave the ground to do it – as it’s all in a simulator at HMS Excellent in Portsmouth.

TRAINING Defence correspondent Michael Powell gets to grips with the Lockheed Martin F-35 jet simulator with help from BAE Harrier pilot Simon Rawlins at HMS Excellent on Whale Island.  'Picture: Ian Hargreaves  (121036-4)

TRAINING Defence correspondent Michael Powell gets to grips with the Lockheed Martin F-35 jet simulator with help from BAE Harrier pilot Simon Rawlins at HMS Excellent on Whale Island. 'Picture: Ian Hargreaves (121036-4)

Defence firm Lockheed Martin brought their F-35 showpiece to the base last week to flaunt the navy’s next generation of fighter jets.

But while dozens of sailors and pilots eagerly got to grips with the touch-screen controls, there remains controversy over which version of the aircraft will eventually fly from the UK’s new aircraft carriers – and how many will be ordered.

The chance to get into the cockpit and play was too hard to resist for most at Fleet Headquarters – especially after the navy had its last fleet of Harrier jets decommissioned in the much-criticised 2010 defence review.

Ex-Harrier pilot Lieutenant Commander Simon Rawlins, 33, was thrilled to have a go in the simulator.

He said: ‘We are in a completely different ball game with this aeroplane.

‘The Harrier was very good but it was a third-generation aeroplane. This is a fifth-generation aeroplane, so it’s unfair to compare the two.

‘It’s like going from using a cassette player to an iPad.’

The F-35 will be capable of flying faster than the speed of sound to launch attacks almost undetected using stealth technology. It will also feature six cameras on the chassis which feed video into the pilot’s helmet visor.

‘When I look through the floor, I’ll actually see what is underneath the plane rather than metal,’ said Lt Cdr Rawlins. He added: ‘It’s going to be a huge advantage.’

As the navy look towards the future in awe, it’s unclear which variant of the F-35 will be bought by the MoD.

In the 2010 defence review, the coalition government decided to switch from Labour’s order for F-35B jets – which use their engines to take off and land vertically – to longer-range F-35Cs which require catapult gear to launch them into the air.

But now Prime Minister David Cameron is set for an embarrassing U-turn after a study found fitting catapults onto the £6bn ships could cost an extra £1.8bn and delay the project to well after 2020.

Pressed on the F-35 issue in parliament last week, Mr Cameron hinted at the U-turn, saying: ‘If costs and facts change, we – unlike previous governments – will not just plough on regardless and make the wrong decisions for political reasons.’

An announcement is expected before Easter.