From Design to Application: Practical Uses for Head Scan Technology in the F-35

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Christopher Culley fits and issues an F-35 Lightning ll Generation lll Helmet Mounted Display System at the Pilot Fit Facility at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ridge Shan)

The F-35 helmet is a work of incredible engineering. It’s designed to not only protect its pilot from a variety of forces in the cockpit but to also integrate the helmet-mounted displays and other necessary elements needed to operate the next-generation systems onboard the F-35.

While the helmet is an essential tool for today’s pilots, effectively putting all of the data and information needed for the mission right in their line of sight, it creates unique challenges when it comes to repair and maintenance.

A pilot could utilize a traditional helmet even if the fit was slightly wrong, or wear and tear resulted in cracks and chips in the visor. However, the advanced technologies inherent in the F-35 helmet make visor cracks and improper fit a much larger problem for the pilot that can impair their ability to accomplish their mission.

Recently, The Modern Battlespace spoke with two members of the Collins Aerospace team to discuss the challenges that these advanced helmets create when it comes to maintenance and repair. They also introduced us to new mobile head scanning and milling solutions developed by Collins Aerospace that are making the replacement of helmet padding and visors an easier, more convenient process that can get pilots back into the fight in days, rather than weeks.

Following those conversations, our team contacted Christopher Culley, Service Engineer at the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF)-based Pilot Readiness Center (PRC), to dive deeper into the technology powering the future of the industry.

The Modern Battlespace (TMB): In our previous conversations about the F-35 helmet, we discussed Collins’ new head scan technology with your associates, Dustin Vagedes and Arthur De Ruiter. Chris, you completed the initial fittings at Luke Air Force Base for many of the pilots flying around the world today using the original fitting process. What have been the benefits of having this new technology with the option to mill on-site?

Chris Culley: A lot of technical expertise, thought and innovation took place when creating this mobile scanner. Collins Aerospace really listened to the end-user and service engineers – like me – and utilized that knowledge to create this mobile scanner and a process that overcame the challenges.

There are lots of benefits to having the new head scanner, an obvious one being mobility. The operator – Collins Aerospace – can take the scanner anywhere and scan pilots anytime.  Other benefits include the superior definition of the scan, which makes it a lot easier to mark the pilots’ pupils, which is a very important step in the process.

“This is a fundamental goal of the RNLAF PRC – ensuring the helmet is properly fit and performs for the pilot is the ultimate measure of success…” – Chris Culley

There are also benefits in calibration and efficiency. The legacy scanner required an annual calibration that could result in the pilot waiting for Collins to fly to the depot to calibrate it before use. That is no longer necessary because the mobile scanner has a calibration table and automatically calibrates before each scan.

Finally, the in-house mill filing system is game-changing. The operator no longer must rely on an outside agency to create the mill file. This saves a tremendous amount of time for the operator and the pilot because they’re now able to manipulate the scan, place the pilot into the helmet, create the mill file and mill the pads for the pilot in less than 48 hours. When you consider that the legacy system could take weeks, this new system gets our pilots in the air in significantly less time.

At the end of the day, pilots just want to fly. Our job is to get them in the air more quickly and safely.

TMB: In those previous discussions, Dustin and Arthur explained how some pilots would tolerate worn padding or cracked visors to avoid being grounded for too long, how does this new process change that? Are you seeing more pilots because the process is much faster?

Chris Culley: Pilots want to stay in the fight and don’t want to be grounded for the extended time it would take to return to the U.S. for a fitting and helmet replacement.

We are only a few months into operating with this new process, however, we predict we will see an increase in pilots coming to see us for pad and visor correction. Being in the country and providing this service has put the pilot first – that is something we strive for. Whether for training purposes or a mission – the pilot is our priority.

“Being in the country and providing this service has put the pilot first – that is something we strive for. Whether for training purposes or a mission – the pilot is our priority.” – Chris Culley

We hope the Collins mobile head scanner and all of the newly innovated technology at the RNLAF PRC encourages pilots to address helmet damage immediately – a proper fit is much safer for the pilot.

TMB: Do you expect to see a lot more pilots in the future fixing pad and visor issues right away, as opposed to learning to fly with issues like hotspots, fatigue, headache, etc.?

Chris Culley: Yes, I expect to see more pilots in the future.

I have been able to travel to RNLAF’s Leeuwarden air base and have worked with a few pilots there to eliminate their double vision issues.  I also have a pilot coming to the RNLAF PRC next month for a new set of pads that will fix the fit issues he has been having.

The more pilots we support, the more word will get out that this technology is real and can help with issues like hotspots, fatigue, headaches, double vision, and others. We hope to see more and more pilots and listen to the challenges they face. We are here to improve their flight experience.

TMB: If more pilots will be taking advantage of this and utilizing it immediately when a problem with their helmet liner or visor arises, it would seem like there could be an increase in the number of helmet repairs that get done. How many pilots can you scan and fit each week?

Chris Culley: As of right now, we have scanned approximately 20 pilots from Leeuwarden, RNLAF. Those scans are part of an effort to provide pads for those pilots if their existing pads become worn or broken. Essentially, this is preventative maintenance where we can get ahead of issues and make sure that fitting the new helmet is as seamless as possible.

Ideally, the pilot won’t miss any flying time as we would work with flight equipment to make the change as soon as possible.

“This saves a tremendous amount of time for the operator and the pilot because they’re now able to manipulate the scan, place the pilot into the helmet, create the mill file and mill the pads for the pilot in less than 48 hours.” – Chris Culley

In the long term, that number will increase as new pilot classes are scheduled and more pilots are in the country who need support. Once we scan, the process is even faster for pad or visor replacement in the future. With this new technology, I don’t anticipate any challenges in keeping up with demand.

TMB: What are your goals as a service engineer at the RNLAF PRC?

Chris Culley: My goal while being here is to let the pilots and flight equipment crews know that I’m here to help with whatever issues they may have. The pilots must know that if they do have issues, they don’t need to live with them. I’m here to help fix them.

I also want to get that needed feedback from pilots and flight equipment crews to help create a better product and processes to help reduce and eliminate issues that pilots find after they leave the traditional fitting experience.

This is a fundamental goal of the RNLAF PRC – ensuring the helmet is properly fit and performs for the pilot is the ultimate measure of success.

To learn more about how Collins Aerospace is working with the RNLAF to create the next generation of pilot headgear, click here.