Pentagon: Lighter helmet will mitigate ejection problem

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — The Pentagon thinks it has a solution to ensure the F-35’s ejection seat will save lives instead of jeopardize them.

Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, head of the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office, told Congress last week that shaving ounces off of the jet’s $400,000 helmet will mitigate the neck injury risk lightweight pilots currently face when they eject from the plane.

Earlier this month, the F-35 office revealed that all U.S. services are forbidding pilots who weigh less than 136 pounds from flying the plane. The restriction began after some late-August flight tests discovered that neck injuries could occur during low-speed ejections.

A Defense News report said testers discovered that “ejection snapped the necks of lighter-weight test dummies.”

On Oct. 21, Bogdan told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces that the ejection seat deficiencies are among the most prominent technical risks associated with the program. But the Air Force general said reducing the helmet’s weight from 5.4 to under 4.8 pounds would reduce the probability of neck injury to a level low enough to remove any restrictions.

“(If) that helmet weighs more than 4.8 pounds, then the neck loads for that lightweight pilot, by a very little bit, exceed what we would consider to be perfectly safe,” Bogdan told the committee. “We are developing that new helmet that weighs less than 4.8 pounds today.”

Bogdan said development of the new helmet has been ongoing for about six months and will take about another year for the project to be complete.

According to F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin, the pricey helmet provides pilots with information on airspeed, altitude, targets and safety warnings — data that is all projected on the helmet’s visor. A camera system on the plane streams real-time images to the helmet, taken from six infrared cameras mounted throughout the jet.

Bogdan said the parachute release upon ejection also contributes to the neck injury issue for lightweight pilots.  

“The solution to that problem … is just to delay that parachute coming out by a fraction of a second,” Bogdan said. “Because as the seat comes out … it begins to decelerate. If you wait just a fraction of a second before you put that main chute out, the seat has decelerated enough so that the force … isn’t as severe.”

Both Bodgan and Maj. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, who also testified before the committee, said overall the F-35 is stable and that the current ejection seat issues only affect a small number of pilots in an even smaller number of scenarios. So far, only one of the more than 200 U.S. F-35 pilots has been restricted from flying the plane.

Nathan Simmons, spokesman for the 388th Fighter Wing, said that none of the pilots at Hill Air Force Base who fly the plane are restricted.

“You start testing at what we call the ’center of the envelope,’ ” Bogdan said. “Meaning the average weight, the average speed, the average altitude. Then you work your way outside to the edges of that envelope and as you get out to the edges of that envelope … things become more severe and are harder to achieve in terms of safety.”

Bogdan said the tests that necessitated the current pilot weight restriction were “at the very edge of the envelope.”

Lawmakers though, told Bogdan that no matter how slight the chances of injury are, the issue needs to be resolved.

“It’s supposed to be life-saving,” said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Force. “Not life-threatening.”

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