Flying & Fighting in the JF-17 Thunder: Interview with Pakistan Air Force fighter pilot

Interview with Pakistan Air Force fighter pilot
Written by Guest Author

The JF-17 Thunder is one of the rarest and least known fighter aircraft in the world. Operated solely by the Pakistan Air Force*, it is a capable fighter in the same class as the F-16. On conditions of anonymity, we spoke to one JF-17 pilot to learn more. 

The views expressed are not the official positions of the PAF.

What is the best and worst thing about the JF-17?

“Best thing: Continuous upgrades of indigenous and Chinese weapons/electronic counter-measures suites, standoff capabilities of exceptional range i.e REK/IREK,CM-400,C-802AK etc. Worst : limited BVR load-out.”

What advice would you give to new pilots on the type?

“Know your books and more importantly know the adversaries books. The modern jets are complex fighting machines so you must be at ease with all the systems in order to employ your jet with confidence

For all new pilots: you have be a perfect blend of nerdiness and madness.. Fighter flying is nothing without study and passion.”

How would you rate the aircraft in terms of A. sustained turn rates B. instantaneous turn C. High alpha D. Acceleration ?

“In A-A config the aircraft is a treat to fly.. turns and rolls like a beauty..2/3 Tank config it becomes a little tricky to manoeuvre above 30,000..below 30,000 it’s superb..”

What has been your most memorable mission & why was that?

“3- 26 Feb 19, after the Indian Air Force’s attempted strikes in Pakistan border region- at 5 in the night took off in rain/low cloud with TS in the vicinity. Clouds were from 4,000 till 33,000 feet. Got out of clouds and controller reported two Su-30s ‘across the fence’. I targeted them at ranges beyond 50-60 NM but didn’t get authorisation to engage from controller, < so I> continued to grind above 32,000 flowing hot and cold 20-30NM from fence targeting the Su-30s. The IAF scrambled a total of six more Su-30s and finally I had eight Su-30s in front. Would turn hot and target each one in sequence from north to south (just spike them seeing whether they get lured in or not). After hitting texaco (air refuelling) returned to based amid rain and wet runway.. the first thing ground crew did was count the missiles.. gave a disappointed look once all were intact. the same profile continued for a couple of month but that first mission was an unbelievable experience.”

Which threat aircraft is most challenging and why? How confident do you against the M2000 and MiG-29? 

“Definitely the Su-30 is the most difficult aircraft in terms of current Indian Air Force inventory but we regularly fly against the F-16 and more importantly AMRAAM, so Adder and Alamo seem less worrisome (smily face). Mirage with MICA is definitely a real threat.”

[​IMG]The IAF’s Su-30 are the most formidable threat aircraft to the PAF.

How would you rate the JF-17s sensors & weapons? 
“KLJ-7 radar plus Indra radar warning receiver plus Self-Protection Jamming, ASEL targeting Pod equals a very potent system. We have air-ground/sea stand-off weapons with ranges of over 50NM, well out of SAM ranges”

Which aircraft have you flown DACT against- which was the most challenging and why?

“DACT : F-16 Block-52+ , Mirage, F:7P.

Turkish F-16s. Definitely F-16+AMRAAM combo was the most challenging.”

What is the best and worst thing about the cockpit?

“Best Thing : The Fully digital cockpit with 3 MFDs … Worst thing: Mmmm… no towel racks <smilie face>!”

What do the ground crew think of the aircraft?

“Some of them are from the F-7 / Mirage III/ V so its a big step up for them. Ground crew that have previously been on F-16 have their hearts with the Falcon.. but one thing is common i.e its our jet, we’ve made it and we own it.”

What is the greatest myth about the aircraft?

“Everything about it is a myth to the outside world because nobody operationally uses it. Only PAF flies it so envelope expansion in terms of capability continuously takes place and scant details are available to other.”

Is it easy to land?

“The easiest aircraft to land amongst what I’ve flown till date. Much more easy than even basic trainers.”

What’s the best way to fight a M2000?

“BVR: Avoid long range low DMC shots of MICA through defensive action in first flow..after that fight at equal advantage in BVR v BVR scenario IR v IR scenario: I don’t think the M2000 would be able to sustain prolonged turning engagement with a Thunder in air-air configuration.. in PAF we have a joke about mirages ” tally one mirage 6 o clock to me and I’m offensively engaged!“

[​IMG]Mirage 2000 with MICA- a threat to be respected.

How would you describe the Thunder in three words?

“Underrated, Reliable, Effective.”

[​IMG]“This is just a fun photo, done with a Thunder-shaped keychain while holding in the pattern”

In a WVR fight would you rather be in an F-16 or JF-17?

“F-16 .. for the initial 180deg turn, then Thunder all the way. JF-17 with PL-10 mod (currently in pipeline) will trump F-16 with AIM-9M any day of the week, but currently on brute performance F-16 has the edge.”

[​IMG]In the valley… north of Pakistan near Kashmir

How good is the engine?

“With the current config engine produces sufficient power – but who doesn’t like a bit of extra thrust?

Which weapons are currently in frontline service on JF-17?

“Currently we have PL-5(IR missile) SD-10(BVR). C-802 anti ship standoff , REK/IREK air-surface standoff with multiple warhead/seekers/roles and then all the GP Bombs, CM-400 and host of other A/G weapons for precision strikes. All that with the integrated ASEL Pod for targeting.”

How would you rate the Thunder’s sensors?

“They are mission/role compatible with continuous upgrades being done on a regular basis. We’ve tested them in a high intensity stand off and everything worked liked a charm which goes to show the resilience of avionics in an intense environment.”

[​IMG]“This is just a fun photo, done with a Thunder-shaped keychain while holding in the pattern”

How comfortable and ergonomic is the cockpit?

“It is one of the most digitised cockpit I’ve flown till date. Even the F-16’s cockpit fades in comparison to the Thunder’s cockpit layout.”

The IAF and PAF account of the 2019 vary, what actually happened? What are popular misunderstandings of it? 

“We shot a MiG-21 on our side and a Su-30 on their side (which we didn’t claim initially because we already had the MiG-21 pilot in custody and that was enough of a message that we had the superiority). Plus we didn’t want to rub it in their face that we had shot two jets which in turn would escalate the problem. Needless to say, we have the wreckage of MiG-21 with all four missiles intact (hence no shooting of our jets took place) plus our electronic warfare (EW) platforms have all the radio transmissions of the IAF — and it’s a treat to listen to those confused and devastated calls of IAF pilots and controller which the shooting was taking place (IAF do not operate on secure radios so all their RT chatter is easily picked by EW platforms. Plus a MiG-21 in Block zero-one i.e below 20,000 with AA-12 Adder can only dream of getting a missile off rail against targets beyond 20NM (plus the Kopyo radar doesn’t support AA-12 launches beyond 20NM and that too on head-on aspects). Plus the evidence the Indians showed was a AMRAAM piece on their side claiming it was from a F-16 they shot. My simple question: if they found a piece of AMRAAM on their side but no jet attached to it then where did the wreckage go? Duhhh. And for a MiG to launch a missile against an F-16 and get it to A-pole and in the meantime get shot by another jet speaks poorly of the MiG-21’s pilot’s priorities as a fighter pilot. Nobody in their right frame of mind would enter the kill zone being spiked from all side and still continue hot without listening to any controller or formation member. In the intense comm jam environment with non secure radio the poor MiG-21 pilot didn’t receive any threat warnings given by his controller and I’m sure he didn’t have a moving map display telling him he had crossed the border and the comms were being jammed.”


Have you fired live weapons, what was it like?

“I’ve fired General Purpose bombs of various sizes and done strafing. haven’t had the pleasure of letting go a missile yet.”

Tell me something I don’t know about the JF-17..

“What the world doesn’t know about thunder? The autonomy it brings to PAF in terms of operations, numbers and capabilities is something that air forces around the world dream of the thing about thunder is that the factory that produces thunder is located in we have all the support available inland. It is a nimble aircraft with a state of the art cockpit…it has air-air / air-ground stand off /air-sea stand off capability.. and a potent EW suite. It is continuously being upgraded with longer range weapons in all roles since we do all the integration ourselves.”

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