Photo and Story by Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
Silence fell over 200,000 people when the announcer’s voice dropped off…
A half million eyes turned up and left, looking to the west.
“And… Ladies and gentlemen, from left of show center- your- United States Air Force F-35A Lightning II..!
It is the first time I have seen a major new aircraft introduced in nearly four decades. It is history. Likely the last time in my lifetime this will happen.
So I look left and up…
A small, grey spike, angled slightly upward, drifting silently toward us at moderate speed. Suddenly its speed gathers. The utter silence is eerie- so many people holding their breath, eyes turned upward, necks craned left. Fingers point. There it is!
It’s flight is like an arrow from a bow until- flame. A tongue of orange perforated fire leaps from the rear of the small grey spike. With unlikely acceleration it angles slightly nose downward and hurtles in front us. Still no noise. Silence. Then…
Like a roar from a movie monster there is a deep growl of fiery thrust, then a sharp, shrill whine above the deep, flaming bass. It’s unlike any sound I’ve heard.
Inside the F-35A USAF Major Will Andreotta, callsign “D-Rail”, cranks his right wrist toward his thigh and pushes his left hand forward. His F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter heels over in the gathering crush of centrifugal force as g-forces accumulate. The Lightning II turns one huge, flat, fiery circle in front of us.
Then it is gone.
There are no stunts. No rolls, loops, tail slides. There is a lingering tinge of afterburner noise as the grey spike rapidly fades into blue sky over Lake Erie.
I had one pass to get a decent photo, and my cameras are old and beat up. Sometimes they work, sometimes not. I get lucky. At the outer edge of my camera’s ability to catch a high resolution image I bag one good shot from a sequence of many. A little Photoshop to tweak color, shadows, light and contrast and I have what may be the most significant photo I’ve shot in four decades: the first time I’ve seen an F-35, an airplane that will still be flying and fighting when I die.
The next morning I get an audience with the pilot of the F-35A, “D-Rail” himself, Major Will Andreotta. Major Andreotta has a tough job flying the F-35A for airshow audiences. Not everyone is convinced the F-35A is a good aircraft. There are protesters outside the airshow holding signs that question how many schools could be built for the price of one F-35A (Quite a few schools could be built, one F-35A costs the Air Force an estimated $98 Million).
Major Andreotta has to chat with everyone from 8-year olds to F-35 protestors to aviation geeks and hybrid journalist/aviation geek/intelligence gatherers like me. But once D-Rail and I begin chatting behind the F-35 demo team tent he senses he’s in relatively safe territory. I ask him pointed questions about F-35 capabilities. My inquiries are laced with attempts to get him to reveal something the rest of the media hasn’t reported on- some new capability, some new feature to report on for the publication I write for, The Tactical Air Network (www.tacairnet.com). D-Rail throws me a bone. He hands me his flight helmet, the nearly half-million dollar helmet that has been a part of the controversy about F-35. They don’t let just anyone handle the $400,000.00 helmet.
It is absurdly light, like a bicycle helmet, and covered in beautiful carbon fiber. The visor looks like crystal and the shell is criss-crossed with communications cables and data cables. With the helmet, D-Rail can “see through” the floor of his F-35.
“It takes a little getting used to, and we don’t turn it on unless we need that capability.” He tells me.
I get no new scoop, no new nugget of previously secret intel about something amazing the F-35 can do. But I do get a series of pregnant pauses and measured responses from D-Rail that hint at many things unsaid.
I also get a handshake, autograph and an F-35 patch, just like the one on D-Rail’s flight suit. My girlfriend Jan Mack shoots a photo of me holding the helmet, standing next to D-Rail with an idiotic grin on my face like a starstruck teenager with a pop star.
But most importantly, I got that one photo when Lightning struck for the first time.