The F-35 Helmet – a Modern Marvel That Creates a Unique Maintenance Challenge

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F-35 helmet

For the military pilot, the ability to perceive threats around their aircraft is the difference between life and death. To give military aviators immediate access and visualization of the data and intelligence they need to increase survivability and accomplish their missions, companies like Collins Aerospace have worked to display data in the most effective place for the pilot –in front of their eyes.

The personal-fit headgear display system utilized by the aviators flying America’s next-generation F-35 joint strike fighter, offers unparalleled situational analysis, visual accuracy, and flight safety. To do so effectively, it needs to be custom-fit to the pilot, and any wear and tear that compromises that fit can have negative impacts on the wearer’s ability to fly their mission.

The Modern Battlespace recently talked with Arthur De Ruiter and Dustin Vagedes of Collins Aerospace, about how the F-35 headgear outperforms helmets from the past. They also explained why wear and tear can be detrimental, and why maintaining these personalized fit helmets can be challenging.

The Modern Battlespace (TMB): How are F-35 helmets and visors superior to prior models? What makes them unique?

Arthur De Ruiter: The F-35 helmet and visor system is truly an engineering marvel that represents today’s fifth-generation warfighter. The key difference between the F-35 helmet and a traditional fourth-generation warfighter helmet used on the F-16 is that all the flight and mission data is presented to the pilot on a display, mounted to the helmet.

“If the pilot looks around in certain conditions, they don’t see the cockpit or even their legs… All they see are their surroundings like terrain” – Arthur De Ruiter

In addition, the helmet is connected to six infrared cameras located around the aircraft, providing a 360-degree view and unprecedented situational awareness. If the pilot looks around in certain conditions, they don’t see the cockpit or even their legs. All they see are their surroundings like terrain, with the flight critical and mission data projected inside the helmet.

Dustin Vagedes: Indeed — the F-35 helmet is unlike any other in history. The Collins Aerospace F-35 Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS) was designed to realize and exploit a true pilot-to-machine union.

“The connection of the HMD to the aircraft is unique for each pilot… to accommodate torso length and range of motion characteristics.” – Dustin Vagades

Weighing in at around five pounds, this system hosts an on-visor, bi-optical Heads-Up Display (HUD) to include digital night vision and imagery overlay from the aircraft’s Distributed Aperture System (DAS), set to each pilot’s interpupillary distance for optimal display quality. The connection of the HMD to the aircraft is unique for each pilot through different length interface cables to accommodate torso length and range of motion characteristics.

TMB: Obviously, all equipment requires maintenance. How does wear-and-tear affect an F-35 pilot’s helmet and visor? Does this headgear last a long time, or will it eventually deteriorate after a few years?

Arthur De Ruiter: Inside the helmet shell are custom-milled pads that generally experience normal wear and tear. Other than being exposed to sweat or hair grease, they usually last a long time if the helmet is well fitted. Visors typically get scratched by frequent handling and need to be replaced more often. That can be a challenge because they must be custom-trimmed to fit the oxygen mask.

“Anything that creates minimal space between the cranium and the custom milled pads can create a problem over time, potentially requiring a helmet refit and updated optical calibration.” – Arthur De Ruiter

The need for helmet refitting becomes really important when physical changes are happening with the pilot, such as weight or hairstyle changes. Anything that creates minimal space between the cranium and the custom milled pads can create a problem over time, potentially requiring a helmet refit and updated optical calibration.

Over time, the pilot will notice if there are any issues by feeling uncomfortable “hot spots” or even double vision, which can lead to fatigue, headaches, and long-term neck injuries. It is important that pilots immediately report any of these issues to their life safety equipment teams, so they can contact Collins Aerospace to solve any fit issues.

Dustin Vagedes: These helmets have proven to be quite resilient. The F-35 has now logged over 400,000 flight hours to date and our 2,000-plus HMDs custom fit and delivered to date have held up well. The HMD system was designed to be operated and maintained in the most austere conditions our warfighters may be operating within. With this in mind, the HMD was designed with seven-line replaceable units (LRUs), that can be serviced or replaced in the field as necessary.

“The helmets go through a lot during their lifetime [which was] considered during the design of the helmet… to reduce the need for returns to the factory for major repairs” – Dustin Vagedes

The helmets go through a lot during their lifetime. Between missions, they are stuffed in the pilots’ helmet bags and stored in their flight lockers. Helmet maintenance and cleaning are often performed by schedule-saturated technicians, who may be stressed with meeting their assigned time-sensitive missions. Pilots can even bang the helmets against things in the cockpit while doing aggressive head turns while checking their “six”. All these things were considered during the design of the helmet and factor into continuous design improvements to reduce the need for returns to the factory for major repairs — saving our customers and our end users money in the long run.

The helmets hold up quite well over time. It’s the visors that are most likely to need replacement since they’re supposed to be clean and clear but are exposed during use and storage. Any scratches on the surface of a visor might become an annoyance to a pilot even if they don’t affect helmet functionality.

TMB: What has the process traditionally involved for replacing a pilot’s helmet and visor? Can they just use replacement parts, or is there a process that must be followed? 

Dustin Vagedes: The previous helmet-mounted display systems have typically been built around a fairly universal helmet shell and require extensive modifications to replace and/or reconfigure for their specified use and reuse.

The Collins Aerospace F-35 HMD’s consistent configuration and integrated design provide a repeatable fit as replacement parts are installed.

The custom-milled liner and visor files are retained indefinitely and are provided to the end-user to further ensure continuity of the performance and fit. These replacements are typically provided by the services-life-support personnel who follow the OEM maintenance process to return a helmet to service, after being trained or re-trained by Collins Aerospace.

Arthur De Ruiter: In the current fitting process, pilot cadets will get their new helmet fit at a Pilot Fit Facility, typically at a US Air Force Base like Luke. This is a two-day process and after they have been fitted, they go straight into their extensive training program. Unless there is a major problem with the helmet seen during training flights, we typically do not see the pilot again.

“If anything happens to the helmet… they would need to go through the entire fitting procedure again, which means returning to at Pilot Fit Facility in the US.” – Arthur De Ruiter

Once they become deployed at their home base and fly extensive hours, they are on their own to work with the services-life-support teams. If anything happens to the helmet that affects the perfect fit beyond what can be resolved with a simple replacement part, they would need to go through the entire fitting procedure again, which means returning to at Pilot Fit Facility in the US. Fortunately, Collins Aerospace has developed a technology that will get pilots back in the air sooner, by bringing the solution to the customer.

In our next article on The Modern Battlespace, we’ll feature the second part of our conversation with De Ruiter and Vagedes, when they talk about an exciting new scanning and subtractive manufacturing solution that make helmet maintenance faster and easier for the military.

For more information on the Collins Aerospace F-35 Helmet Mounted Display (HMD) system, click HERE.

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The Modern Battlespace, brought to you by Collins Aerospace, explores the latest trends and issues that are impacting the evolution of the battlespace and the technology solutions supporting it. The editorial team will talk with experts and get their insights, opinions, and best practices on issues impacting the warfighter