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Contractor Reports Progress on F-35’s Gen III Light Helmet 
By Stew Magnuson

Rockwell Collins, maker of the F-35 joint strike fighter’s helmet mounted display system, will begin delivering a lighter version of the system next year, company executives said in a recent interview.

Testers in 2015 found that there was a risk that lighter pilots might suffer neck damage if ejected from the aircraft, resulting in those under 136 pounds being temporarily banned from flying the plane.

A half pound has been shaved off the helmet’s weight, which will re-adjust the center of gravity, said Joe F. Ray, the company’s marketing manager for government systems. All pilots, not just the lighter ones, will receive the new version of the Gen III helmets next year.

“Pilots of all shapes and sizes, if you will, will be able to operate the helmet,” said Brad Haselhorst, Rockwell Collin’s vice president for government systems strategy and development.

The helmet’s display system is an integral part of the F-35, but one that has suffered some development setbacks. Gen II helmets had an issue with the tracker. That has been resolved. “Now the pilots aren’t having any of the delays or inconsistencies in the visual system,” Ray said.

“Just like any system that you have, when it’s new and it’s unique, you’re going to have issues. We understand that. You just continue to plug though and now we have, we think, a pretty good product,” Ray said.

The Gen III models went into production about two years ago, Haselhorst said. Approximately 170 have been issued and 400 are on order. It has been baselined, meaning its design will remain as is for the next 2,400 or so units produced.

The contractor brought a mock-up to its booth at the recent Air Force Association annual conference in National Harbor, Maryland. The display embedded in the visor provides a 360-degree view. For example, pilots can look down and get an image underneath the F-35 giving them the sense that they are looking through the aircraft.

The virtual heads-up display includes target tracking, a digital night vision sensor, flight and weapon status, video recording and a picture-in-picture capability.

“Ultimately what we want to do is make this such an immersive experience that they are able to act without really thinking about it,” Ray said. The company and the program tout it as the most advanced jet fighter display system ever produced.

Rockwell Collins will continue to look into improvements. “We want to be able, from our contribution, reduce the amount of power, make it lighter, make it more comfortable for the pilot,” Ray said.

Reducing the power consumption would lessen the amount of heat being emitted and would make the helmet more comfortable. Shaving off energy needs, no matter how small, is important. “Even in an aircraft like the F-35, you’re always concerned about power because you’re putting more capabilities on the aircraft,” Ray said.

The company could make that adjustment by using “visual organic light-emitting diodes,” an emerging technology that Haselhorst predicted will be in most consumer televisions within the next five years. “It’s light and takes less power,” he said.

Rockwell Collins is also working with prime contractor Lockheed Martin to reduce the cost of the display system as part of an overall effort to reduce the per-aircraft price tag. “Everybody is trying to get the costs down,” Haselhorst said. As the rate production rates go up, the manufacturing process will become more efficient, which should result in some savings, he added.

Meanwhile, pilots are having to change their thinking about the technology. They can’t have a cavalier attitude and treat the system like their old helmets. This education begins at one of the three pilot fit facilities, where trainees are issued individually designed helmets, Ray said.

Pilots sit in a chair, where a laser takes precise measurements of their jaw structure and head. Frames come in standard sizes: small, medium, large and extra large, but the data taken from the measurement is processed and then used to whittle down the inside liner for a precise fit. The display’s apex is also adjusted.

Since everyone’s eyes are different, measurements are taken of them for the display as well.

“Pilots used to throw their helmets on the ground,” Ray said. It has to be impressed upon them “this isn’t just a helmet. You need it for protection, but this is your cockpit and you have to treat it that way. ... The aircraft doesn’t fly without it.”

Photo: Rockwell Collins


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