Related question: Do fly-by-wire flight controls in airliners provide artificial feel?

Icefire, by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, contains the following passage:

When the engineers develop a new plane, they like to give the pilots something familiar to work with, so they adjust the computer controls to feel like a plane the pilots already fly and like. The Tomcat's one of those jets. Solid, dependable, every test pilot's flown them. So every new fly-by-wire plane feels a lot like a Tomcat.

Now, let's face it, this is a book featuring the main character stealing, and making off with, a Lockheed SR-72, so I'm not expecting everything to be a model of technical accuracy, but there could be a rock of truth in the middle of this snowball of fiction.

Are NATO fly-by-wire fighters designed to feel like F-14 Tomcats?

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    $\begingroup$ It seems that the question itself is a tautology. give the pilots something familiar - since most NATO nations do not operate the F14 nor have their pilots flown one, then why chose it as the "model"? $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Jul 3, 2015 at 4:47
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    $\begingroup$ I'd guess that the common model is not the F-14 but the range of movements and resistances that facilitate sustained fine-control in average 20-year old males (and now people of any sex). It may be the F-14 gets close to this but that correlation is not causative for later designs. $\endgroup$ Jul 3, 2015 at 8:53
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    $\begingroup$ If you can actually steal an SR-72, manage to takeoff, and know how to fly the thing, I'd think making off with it would be pretty easy, at least until you run out of fuel. I mean, what are they going to do when you blast away at Mach 6? An F-22 would look like it's sitting still by comparison. The missiles fired by an F-22 would look like they're sitting still by comparison. However, things become more problematic when you need to refuel. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Jul 7, 2015 at 5:54

3 Answers 3


Most decidedly not, at least not for the first fly-by-wire fighter in the NATO arsenal, the F-16. Its stick, in initial block versions, did not move at all, instead using piezoelectric load cells to detect stick pressure. This caused some issues with novice Viper drivers overreacting to the stiffness of the controls compared to anything they had flown and overrotating the jet on takeoff, smacking the turkey feathers on the ground. Later blocks put a little play in the stick.

As far as the Tomcat being an easy plane to fly, Top Gun kind of over-romanticized it. The TF30 engine initially put into these aircraft was underpowered and terribly unreliable (one thing the movie did get right is that the engines were prone to compressor stalls when encountering disturbed air such as jetwash or even their own missile launch trails). The aircraft itself, while a big improvement in dogfighting over the F-4, was still big and heavy, the result of requirements that it be a long-range supersonic interceptor in an era without supercruise or the relatively light AMRAAM missile; the aircraft instead had to be able to haul a full load of AIM-54 Phoenix missiles intended for the ill-fated naval variant of the F-111, along with the large, complex radar system to lock on and fire them, and a boatload of fuel to get all that out to patrol range and back.

The Navy's initial mixed results with the F-14A, along with the extremely high costs of the aircraft ($32 million each at the height of production) and the lack of ground attack capabilities, were mirrored in the USAF with its F-15 program; the looming retirement of the F-4 was about to leave both branches without a fighter capable of the Phantom's multi-mission capability, and both the F-14 and F-15 were big expensive interceptor-style pure air-to-air fighters, which some Air Force brass believed was proof that nothing had been learned from Vietnam. The USAF commissioned the Light Weight Fighter competition, which produced the F-16, a light, relatively inexpensive multirole fighter that has become one of the most successful land-based fighter jets in history. The Navy preferred some traits in the USAF's losing aircraft, the YF-17, such as the twin-engine design for durability, and it would go on to develop this design into one of the most successful naval aircraft of all time, the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet.

The Tomcat eventually lived up to its promises with some engine and avionics upgrades (including a hybrid-FBW system and a LANTIRN pod to add air to ground smart bomb capabilities) but the aircraft was by no means a perfect plane or a dream to fly.

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    $\begingroup$ Really nice answer. Would be spectacular with some references edited in. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Jul 10, 2015 at 12:26

Probably not.

One manufacturer of "Active Control" joysticks, as used in F-35 training simulators says

Because the active control stick is controlled by a computer almost any characteristic can be programmed. Typical and useful characteristics include:

  • Multi modal feel characteristics - the ability to completely change the stick feel when moving from one flight condition to another, for example, in a vertical take-off and landing aircraft from wing borne to jet borne flight.
  • Variable stiffness characteristics - the control forces can be changed forcing the pilot out of dangerous manoeuvres.
  • Variable range of motion - the available motion range can be changed forcing the pilot out of dangerous manoeuvres.
  • Soft stops - localised increases in the force characteristics can be programmed dramatically into the stick characteristic to warn the pilot of the onset of flight restrictions.
  • Power management cues - in helicopters a major maintenance expense is incurred if the pilot applies too much torque to the rotor. The stick force can be made to reflect the rotor torque through the flight envelope reducing pilot workload in monitoring the torque and operating costs.
  • Stick shake functions - to mimic buffet ad issue warnings to the pilot.
  • The stick can also be made to reproduce the mechanical characteristics of a more conventional stick such as breakout forces at the datum.

I'm unfamiliar with F-14 control stick behaviour but I imagine it has none of the first five characteristics though it might have the last two of these.

I don't know if the F-35, for example makes use of these characteristics but it seems likely.


The post above comments on the F-16 originally having an immobile control stick, and that it had been modified in later versions to be more similar to a video game. As a professional video game developer who has actually been in a late-model F-16 simulator, I can tell you that it feels nothing like a video game stick, and it feels a bit like pushing on an immobile metal rod that has been covered in a slightly spongy surface. It doesn't actually move in any direction, although the surface does have a bit of give, so it doesn't feel totally immobile. Despite the fact that I had never used one before, it was still relatively intuitive to use, and I didn't find it difficult, but it is dramatically different than a joystick. I haven't been in any other jet cockpits, so I don't know for sure, but I would assume they would all have to be dramatically stiffer than anything used in civilian life, if for no reason other than to avoid having it move during acrobatic maneuvers.


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