The F-35 helmet is back in the news again, after Defense News, sister publication of Air Force Times, reported that F-35 pilots weighing under less than 136 pounds have been were grounded due to concerns with the plane’s ejection seat.
"What we found was if the pilot has a helmet on his head or her head and that helmet weighs more than 4.8 pounds, then the neck loads on that light-weight pilot — by a very little bit — exceed what we would consider to be perfectly safe," said Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, program executive officer for the F-35 Joint Program Office.Tests showed that a lighter-weight pilot’s neck could snap during an ejection at slow speeds. While the ejection-seat issue is separate from the helmet, there are concerns that the heavy headgear is contributing to the problem of neck injuries during ejections.
"Today our helmets weigh about 5.4 pounds, so we're talking about six ounces of weight to get out of the helmet," Bogdan told the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces Oct. 21. "We need a lighter helmet, it's as simple as that."
The service is trying to remove weight from the straps and padding that secure the helmet on the pilot's head, and is considering using different materials for those components, Bogdan said.
The helmet will also move to a single visor, as used in legacy aircraft. Previously, it was equipped with both a daytime and nighttime visor. But Bogdan said there will only be a single slot for a visor that the pilot can manually switch out between day and night.
The changes to the helmet — and fixes to the ejection system — are expected to be done in 12 months to 18 months, the general said.
He added that the helmet's advanced electronic systems are not affected and will not be changed in the effort to lighten the helmet. "We are not changing any of the electronics, we are not changing any of the sensors," he said.
One of those advanced systems is a series of six cameras, embedded in the hull, which will show the pilot what's below the aircraft. Coupled with the advanced heads-up display on the helmet visor, the idea is that the system will allow the pilot to "see" what's under the craft by just looking down.
But in an interview with Dutch website Krigeren, Maj. John Wilson with the 61st Fighter Squadron said he's never really used the feature.
"It's cool, but I don't use it that often" he said. "If I really want to see what's underneath me, I'll just look outside, I just roll up … because it doesn't take much longer for me to just bank the airplane."
Wilson said that he can't rely on the cameras alone, as he needs to see things with his own eyes in order to judge things like depth, distance and speed; and called the cameras an "added benefit" that he uses mainly for night flying.
Lt. Col. Michael Gette, commander of the 61st Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, and an expert on the F-35, agreed that looking with your own eyes is better, but he said the cameras have received lots of controversy just because they're new.
"It's not really an essential technology," he said. "I think people kind of lock onto that because it's new and it's cool."
The feature is something he's mainly used when it's dark.
"It is useful," Gette said. "It's not like looking with your eyeballs, which makes the feature essentially something you would use at night. We have been using it on our night sorties here and it's been effective. ... You can maintain awareness of ground features."
But Dan Grazier, with the Project on Government Oversight, questioned why the military was spending money on a complicated technological fix to an easily solved problem. If the military is concerned about pilot visibility, then it should have made it easier for pilots to see from the cockpit rather than trying to allow them to see through the cockpit, he said.