Rockwell Collins Delivers F-35 Generation III Helmet; Aircraft's Gatling Gun Tested

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

The first batch of Generation III F-35 helmet mounted display systems was delivered Aug. 11 at a ceremony in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The new system — built by Rockwell Collins — includes a number of upgrades, including improved night vision, optics and liquid-crystal displays which “really help increase the accuracy and clarity of the system,” said Rob McKillip, Rockwell Collins’ senior director for the helmet.

Improvements to the night vision capability were accomplished by the inclusion of an upgraded sensor known as ISIE 11, which includes a higher resolution camera.

“We now have the ISIE 11 available and that’s a significant improvement in performance” compared to the ISIE 10, he said. “It has got higher sensitivity, higher resolution and [a] faster update rate.”
Other upgrades include automated alignment and software improvements, he noted.

The helmets will be introduced to the F-35 fleet in low-rate initial production Lot 7 in 2016, a Rockwell Collins press release said.

The helmet is one of the most complex parts of the joint strike fighter. Each helmet must be custom fitted to a pilot’s eyes. Mission information is displayed on the visor of the helmet. Six infrared cameras on the aircraft stream to the system, which allows pilots to look through the airframe.

The Government Accountability Office in a 2013 report on the aircraft called the helmet mounted display "integral to the mission systems architecture, to reduce pilot workload, and to achieve the F-35's concept of operations." The first-generation helmets had significant technical deficiencies causing the program to go back to the drawing board, the report said.  

The new version resolves a number of issues that were present in past iterations of the helmet, McKillip said.

Previously, pilots had complained about a “green glow” that obstructed their view. McKillip said that issue has largely been fixed in the Generation III system.

The problem arises from the contrast ratio in the helmet’s display system, he said.

“Contrast ratio is the ratio between the part of the display you want and then the background luminous,” he said. “There’s always some amount of background light that comes through the display, so you can never quite eliminate that.”

Although the green glow can never go away completely, “we made it significantly better,” he said.

For now, the company doesn’t know of any major issues with the system, McKillip said. “The testing looks good. We may learn more as it is fielded, and not only just initial fielding but as it goes out across different services and flies at different places around the world,” he said.

The Generation III system is a touch heavier than its predecessor, weighing approximately 5 pounds. Rockwell Collins is researching ways to reduce the helmet’s weight by about 10 percent, McKillip said.

Going forward, Rockwell Collins will make small tweaks to the system. “We’ve already resolved many of the big issues so now we’re working on smaller things,” he said.

It has been reported by some news organizations that the helmet system alone costs more than $400,000 on the already immensely expensive Lockheed Martin-built aircraft, but McKillip disputed that number. He would not disclose the cost of the helmet, but said it was “dramatically” less expensive than previous versions.

Meanwhile, the F-35 joint program office announced Aug. 20 that the F-35A had fired 181 rounds from its 25mm Gatling gun at Edwards Air Force Base earlier in in the month. The gun gives pilots the ability to hit air-to-ground or air-to-air targets, the JPO press release said.

“The F-35 joint strike fighter integrated test force aims to complete ground testing this month and start airborne gun testing in the fall. At the end of the program’s system development and demonstration phase in 2017, the F-35 will have an operational gun,” the press release said.

The gun is embedded in the aircraft’s left wing to preserve the F-35’s stealth capability by reducing its radar cross section. The gun must be hidden until the trigger is engaged, the press release said.

Gun testing began on June 9, with JPO officials using a modified F-35 flight sciences aircraft, known as AF-2, and a production version of the GAU-22/A gun. Next year, the gun will be tested on a line production F-35A. “Test pilots will then observe qualitative effects, such as muzzle flash, human factors, and flying qualities,” the press release said.

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter

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