F-35 helmets face tough tests

When the first F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets become operational, the pilots will be able to look into the bubble-shaped visors on their helmets and see through the plane, so to speak, thanks to cameras on the aircraft that will give them a 360-degree view.

But for now, as the military and the manufacturers continue to fine-tune the system, the view is somewhat jittery and latent, relative to the super­sonic speeds at which these new workhorse jets fly. And night vision sometimes is a tad blurry, according to Joe Della­Vedova, spokesman for the Joint Strike Fighter program.

He’s certain, though, the kinks will be worked out as the program continues to move forward and the first four planes of three dozen F-35s land early next year at Nellis Air Force Base, launching a new era at the fighter-pilot training range north of the Las Vegas Valley.

“It’s cutting-edge technology,” DellaVedova said Friday about the helmet, which makes the pilot look like he morphed into a giant, amber-headed grasshopper. The carbon-fiber bonnet, rigged with night-vision cameras, is being developed by Vision Systems International, a subcontractor to the F-35’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin.

“They’ll be able to see through the airplane, but there are challenges that go with it in testing and development. We will get there,” he said.

Today, Maj. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan, deputy executive officer of the Joint Strike Fighter program, will speak about the F-35’s progress and challenges when the nonprofit Air Force Association convenes at National Harbor, Md.

DellaVedova said among the challenges are jitter that occurs from aircraft vibrations and “latency,” the time delay of camera images transmitted to a pilot’s helmet. Although they are tiny fractions of a second, the time delays encountered are magnified with the pilot’s binocular vision as the plane flies at up to 1½ times the speed of sound.

He said another issue that needs to be ironed out is “night-vision acuity,” or the ability to see sharp, clear images.

Next week, the Joint Strike Fighter program will start more rigorous testing on the helmet, which is critical to flying the F-35 safely. Meanwhile, operational testing of the aircraft can proceed, “but there are test points we can’t get to until the helmet is on track,” DellaVedova said.

Already the helmet has been used to fly the plane at night and during the day, and while weapons are released. The solutions to the problems “are at hand” and will be solved, he assured.

“The maturation of technology systems to arrive at suitable night vision, weapons employment and all the flight parameters on the visor without the need for goggles is critical,” he said.

Technical glitches aren’t the only hurdles in the way of operational testing of the Joint Strike Fighter jets at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.; Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.; and Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. So are looming budget cuts that cloud the future of the Joint Strike Fighter program.

Bogdan’s presentation falls on the heels of potential $110 billion in across-the-board budget cuts, including 9 percent to most Defense Department programs. On Friday, the White House Office of Management and Budget announced details of the cuts in a 400-page report required under the Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012.

The automatic spending cuts, split between national security and nonsecurity programs, will take effect Jan. 2 unless the Obama administration and Congress can forge a deal to reduce the $16 trillion national debt over the next decade.

The report calls for billions of cutbacks in defense spending on aircraft operations, maintenance, procurement, and research, development, testing and evaluation: enough to cripple the Joint Strike Fighter Program.

The Air Force intends to buy 1,700 of the multipurpose, stealthy fighter jets, or most of the 2,443 Joint Strike Fighters that the U.S. military is planning to purchase by 2037 as aging F-16s, A-10s and F-18s are retired. The rest will go to the Navy and Marines and will be able to take off and land on flight decks.

The Pentagon has anticipated spending $69 billion by the time F-35 flight testing ends in 2017, buying 365 aircraft, about 15 percent of the targeted total. The first 63, however, exceeded their target cost by $1 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Another 700 are destined for eight partner countries – the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Italy, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway ­- with additional sales to Japan and Israel.

Nellis Air Force Base is planning to receive 36 Joint Strike Fighters for what is called “beddown” at the base through 2020.

If no deficit-reduction deal is struck soon, however, Lockheed Martin will be required to issue layoff notices at the end of October to many in its 120,000 workforce, including those involved with manufacturing, testing and delivering F-35 aircraft.

In an Aug. 13 meeting with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Kelly Ayote, R-N.H., Nellis officials said not only would their hopes for the F-35 deliveries be dashed if automatic cuts kick in, but the fighter pilot training program in general would be devastated.

The Defense Department, however, “is not conducting planning related to sequestration,” Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon said in an email last week.

Under the fiscal year 2013 Air Force budget, Gen. Mark A. Welsh noted at his chief-of-staff confirmation hearing in July that “every modernization program is affected in a major way, especially some of the key ones that we are going to rely so much on here over the next 10 to 20 years as we try to populate the force with new capability we need.”

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at
krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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