F-35 pilots say the aircraft's seat is more comfortable than those in older jets, and its five-point harness is easier to remove. (Maj. Karen Roganov / Air Force)
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The F-35 Lightning II has a new seat that test pilots say is much more comfortable than the one found in legacy fighters.
The comfort, pilots say, comes in large part because the F-35 doesn't require pilots to wear a harness for securing into the seat and ejection equipment. Instead, it uses a five-point restraint system built into the seat, much like how a seat belt is built into a car.
"It's a very comfortable seat fitting, even cinched down," said Marine Col. Arthur Tomassetti, vice commander of 33rd Fighter Wing, the unit training F-35 pilots across the services. "You feel more connected with the cockpit than with some other legacy systems."
Tomassetti, who said he has flown more than 40 other aircraft, said he has noticed the comfort in his five hours flying the F-35. He lamented having to use the harness in older aircraft.
"I never in my life had anyone ... describe [the harness] as comfortable," he said.
But with the F-35, "I just walk out to the airplane, very natural, with my jacket or vest depending on the season, and my G-suit, and it's very comfortable."
The new seat, model US16E, is built by Martin-Baker and will be used in all three F-35 variants. The company produces similar models for the Air Force's T-38 Talon and T-6 Texan.
Tomassetti said the only seat that can compare in comfort in the aircraft he has flown is the F-16's Advanced Concept Ejection Seat II, which is also in use in other Air Force jets, including the F-22.
Instead of a harness that connects to points in the plane, the new system uses two lap and two shoulder belts that all snap into a buckle at the end of a fifth belt. This fifth belt comes up between the pilot's legs from the seat's bucket. Besides securing a pilot to the aircraft, it also connects him to ejection equipment. Additional active arm restraints and passive leg restraints prevent a pilot's arms and legs from flailing if he has to bail out.
Like the setups in older fighters, the pilot can adjust the height of the seat, but F-35 pilots can also adjust the tilt, Tomassetti said.
Dan Canin, a test pilot for Lockheed Martin, the lead contractor for the F-35, said the restraint does a better job keeping the pilot seated. When flying negative Gs or inverted in seats requiring a harness, a pilot would "hover" over the seat, making it more difficult to control the plane.
"Now, when you go upside down, you're connected to the airplane," he said.
Tomassetti said a tightly cinched restraint can keep a pilot connected to his seat in an extreme maneuver, but with the center-point buckle on the F-35 seat, it's easier. Fastening himself into the cockpit began to feel natural after about the eighth flight, Tomassetti said. It takes longer to secure yourself into the F-35 cockpit compared with a Navy F/A-18 Hornet, he said, but you can get out much faster.
"I never really want to rapidly get in the airplane, but there are times when I want to rapidly get out," he said. "Now, when it's time to get out, I hit one button and turn the buckle and all of the things that are connecting me, from my shoulder to my lap, are disconnected in one motion," he said.
Canin said it takes about a second to get out of the new seat, but it takes longer in Hornets because the air crew members have to unclip several points on their harnesses as well as their leg garters.
Tomassetti has flown the F-35 about 30 times and said he likes the new arrangement, but it's difficult to separate the benefits of the new system itself from the benefits of flying without the uncomfortable harness.
Besides the new restraint system, there's also a new plug for establishing vital support systems. Instead of having to plug in a G-suit hose, oxygen hose, communication line and other gear once in the connector, there's a single plug called a "pilot interface connector" that handles all of those functions.
Staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Question from AirForceTimes.com reader">Brian Everstine contributed to this story.