Fighter Pilot: The Real Top Gun series

F-35 sat on a runway.

A new three-part documentary series started on Tuesday on ITV – following a trio of fighter pilot recruits as they attempt to become the best of the best – to be selected to fly the RAF’s brand new F35 Lightning jet.

“This is the Oxford or Cambridge of fighter pilot training. It is not easy. Anytime someone takes their foot off the gas here, they will fail.”

– ‘Puppy’, fighter pilot school boss

With exclusive access to the Royal Air Force’s brand new £100 million F35 fighter programme and to the Ministry Of Defence’s fast jet recruitment process, this series goes inside the cockpit to bring viewers a vivid insight into the challenges faced by the men and women who aim to become the UK military’s top guns. 

The series features a close-up perspective on those on the learning curve aiming to reach the top as well as on already qualified fighter pilots training to fly the massively advanced new F35 aircraft. With just a few months to get ready for the front line, their task is to be fitted up for space-age new suits and helmets, to learn how to steer with their feet – and to familiarise themselves with a jet that can avoid radar, hover, and land vertically. 

With footage shot at the RAF’s academy in North Wales and at the F35 base in South Carolina, USA, the programme features Danielle, known as Danners, who is aiming to become one of only nine British female frontline pilots, former windsurfing instructor Sedge, and young dad Andy. 

The trio are aiming to ultimately become F35 pilots if they make the grade – but if they fail they face the reality that they may not get the chance to fly fast jets again. Narrated by Samantha Bond, this programme gives viewers a breath-taking cockpit-eye view of the recruits stepping into the danger zone aiming to achieve their dreams. 

In the first episode, Andy and Sedge must sit their fast jet driving test at the fighter pilot base at RAF Valley in Anglesey. Until now both have only flown propeller planes. For Andy a combination of training and a secondment to the States has meant this has been a long time coming. He says: “Yeah, it’s a big moment. I’ve been waiting nine years in the RAF to get into a fast jet so it’s going to be good. I’ll let you know how I feel at the end of it.” 

Before signing up Sedge was a self-confessed beach bum. He says: “I got into teaching windsurfing and thought I might just travel the world being a beach bum for a long time. I was definitely drifting. I didn’t really have a huge sense of purpose… At that point I just sat down and asked myself what it was I wanted to do with my life, and top of that list was naval fighter pilot. I didn’t ever make it to writing number two.” 

Fighter school boss Puppy explains if the trainees were to make a mistake while in the cockpit, the consequences could be devastating. He says: “Before someone goes for a solo in a jet, that is a big step in their career. You need to know that that is going to be safe. Fast jets bite, and if you get it wrong, it can kill you.” 

The school trains pilots for the RAF and the Royal Navy. Danielle, known as Danners, whose husband flies for a low cost airline, is retraining to be a fighter pilot having previously flown Navy helicopters. Britain only has eight frontline female fighter pilots and Danners is the schools only female student. She says: “I don’t see myself as the stereotypical kind of alpha-male fighter pilot. they’re very confident and very outgoing. That just hasn’t been me. I’ve always just been of the opinion of I’ll keep going until someone finds me out, until they realise actually I’m the wrong person for this, I probably shouldn’t be here.” 

Yet she is further on in her training than the others, and is sent out on a sortie to learn how to handle the jet at dangerous low heights and make it to a target on time. She is given a target that she’ll have to fly over exactly on time, with only a five-second margin of error. To make it there she’ll be flying at 500mph just 250ft from the ground – a height that is littered with hazards Danners will have to work hard to avoid.  

Asked if there’s anything she’s most worried about, Danners says: “Messing up. It’s like anything – when you want to do well in something, you’ve rehearsed it in your head. You’ve gone through it over and over again. And then you’re bound to make a mistake at some point. Everybody does.” 

Four thousand miles away in South Carolina, the Lightning Force they want to join are learning how to fly the brand new jet alongside their American allies. Their 617 squadron, otherwise known as the famous Dambusters, was first formed in the Second World War. Former Tornado jet pilot Bally is due to have his first experience in the £100million F35 jet, and is fitted with a new state-of-the-art helmet. He says: “In the Second World War when they started attaching other bits to your helmet you’d have maybe had headphones or a microphone attached… [This helmet] can tell where you’re looking and so it knows not to project certain info in certain places,but for everything else you can see through the body of the aircraft. It’s cool.” 

Once he’s in the cockpit, after a false start, Bally attempts his first ever vertical landing from a hover, which he explains requires supreme focus. He says: “The excitement comes before and afterwards maybe. In the middle when you are actually doing it, you focus on the task in hand and that’s what all the training is about so you can do that without succumbing to those feelings of excitement or nerves or whatever it may be.”

If you missed part one you can watch it on the ITV hub.  

This is a Blakeway production for ITV  (source: ITV.com)

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