What does it take to become a real top gun? Skill, of course, but also nerves of steel – what one instructor in Fighter Pilot calls "the X factor ... that ability to think clearly under pressure".
For the recruits hoping to be selected to fly the UK Royal Air Force's incredible F35 Lightning jets, the pressure is intense, as this three-part documentary series shows. Fighter Pilot: The Real Top Gun follows a trio of fighter pilot recruits as they attempt to become the best of the best, along with a pilot already in the Lightning force and deep in training to fly the F35.
Narrated by actress Samantha Bond (Downton Abbey), the series makes the most of access to the RAF's new 100 million-pound (A$177 million) fighter program, and gives a glimpse of the many challenges faced by those chasing their dreams.
We meet young dad Andy early on in his time at Britain's Fighter Pilot School in RAF Valley, Anglesey, in north Wales, which prepares students for frontline squadrons. Only if pilots pass the course at the school will they then be in the running to make it onto the Lightning Squad. For some, like Andy, it's a big jump from the propeller planes they've flown before, to their first time in a military training jet – just as a passenger to start with. There's a long way to go before what the series describes as "the driving test of their lives", at the end of their time at the academy.
The school trains pilots for the Navy and the RAF – Sedge is from the Navy. Before signing up, Sedge was a windsurfing instructor and self-confessed beach bum. "Yeah, there was a bit of giddy child for sure. Erm, there'll be some stressful times ahead, I'm sure. But the aim is to enjoy it. If you're not enjoying it, you're probably in the wrong job," he says as he starts his time at the RAF school.
A few weeks ahead of Andy and Sedge in training at the Anglesey academy is Danielle, known as Danners, who is retraining to be a fighter pilot. She used to fly Navy helicopters. "I was deployed out to the Caribbean where we were predominantly involved in humanitarian and disaster relief following a series of hurricanes in 2015. And that was immensely rewarding, being able to use an aircraft and operate an aircraft that you've trained on to help so many people," she says. Now she's hoping to become part of a very small, elite group: At the time of filming, Britain had only eight frontline female fighter pilots, and Danners is the school's only female student.
Across the Atlantic, at the F35 base in South Carolina, in the USA, there's no margin for failure either. Training alongside their American allies, the UK pilots who have already made it onto the F35 Lightning force have just months to get ready for the front line. While some come straight from fighter pilot school in Wales, Bally has spent four years in a frontline tornado squadron. But even with his jet experience, there's still a lot to learn.
He and his fellow pilots need to be fitted for high-tech new suits and helmets and learn to fly a jet that can avoid radar, travel at a top speed of 1200 miles (1930 km) per hour, and hover and land vertically. "What makes this plane special is the fact that it's stealthy, it can do air to air and air to surface missions and electronic attack missions. And it can do all that whether operating from a main operating base or off an aircraft carrier," says Squadron boss 'Butch'.
Butch's 617 Squadron is the modern incarnation of World War II's 'Dam Busters'. "What connects the modern-day 617 to the original 617 Squadron in my mind, is really being at the cutting-edge of technology in order to make sure that we maintain our fighting edge," he says.
"When you climb into Lightning, it feels like you're taking a step into the future," says Butch. Will Bally, Andy, Danners and Sedge all make it?
See three-part series Fighter Pilot: The Real Top Gun Thursdays at 8.30pm from 19 May on SBS VICELAND. Episodes will be available at SBS On Demand after they air. Start with episode 1: