EGLIN AFB, Fla. — Lockheed Martin, prime contractor for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, has begun looking for an alternative helmet system for the stealthy aircraft, as problems with the current Vision Systems International helmet continue to plague the program.
Lockheed issued a March 1 draft specification for proposals on an alternate helmet-mounted display system that makes use of commercial, off-the-shelf night-vision goggles, according to John Kent, a Lockheed spokesman. A final request for proposals is expected by the end of the month, and a selection will be made by the end of June. Candidates include BAE Systems, Gentex and VSI, Kent says.
Continuing problems on the VSI helmet-mounted display system include jitter in displaying data on the visor and problems with the night-vision capability. VSI is a Rockwell Collins/Elbit joint venture (Aerospace DAILY, Feb. 17)
The 33rd Wing at Eglin AFB, Fla., the F-35 pilot and maintainer schoolhouse, is making preparations for flight training with the VSI system; officials there have already begun custom-molding helmets for early instructor pilots. Should VSI fail to make fixes, it is unclear how quickly an alternate design can be fed into the training wing’s operations.
USAF Maj. Gen. C.D. Moore, deputy JSF program manager, says that the alternate helmet system has resources in the program plan, so funding is not an issue at this time. Meanwhile, AF 8, a conventional-takeoff-and-landing (CTOL) version, is expected to arrive at Eglin as soon as May, with as many as five additional aircraft arriving by September, when the wing is slated to be ready for pilot training.
In the interim, the F-35s delivered to Eglin will be used for maintainer training. Moore says program officials are looking at potentially conducting some limited flight training operations prior to September. However, a lot depends on how much of the flight envelope is cleared by the flight test program.
Leading up to September, AF 6 and AF 7, instrumented CTOL versions that were to go to Eglin but were diverted to support flight trials at Edwards AFB, Calif., will undergo a series of what Moore calls “maturity flights.” He says this is needed prior to a brief operational assessment so that officials can be confident there will be no “seams” when the aircraft are cleared for flight training at Eglin. “Until I get the maturity stuff from Edwards, we are going to turn … aircraft over to the maintainers” for training at Eglin, Moore says.
Time has been on the training wing’s side, as Lockheed Martin struggles to work through flight trials and provide aircraft for training. The first fighters were expected at Eglin last year, when the wing was working to what its commander acknowledges was an aggressive schedule to start flight training last fall. “This is a better glide path,” says Col. David Hlatky, commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin, referring to a wing startup plan that was revised in accordance with the Pentagon’s decision to restructure the JSF program.
In the meantime, Hlatky says the wing is following a traditional “walk, crawl, run” path that began last month with the use of four F-16s pulled from Luke AFB, Texas. They are surrogates for the wing to restart flight ops while waiting for delivery of its first F-35s. “We get to teach this wing to fly all over again,” Hlatky says. “This wing hadn’t turned a wheel in months.” It formerly operated F-15s.
The F-16s are currently being housed in shelters at the wing’s budding facility across from the Northwest Florida Regional Airport passenger terminal, which is located on the opposite side of the taxiway from Eglin’s operations. The F-16s are slated for use at the 33rd Wing for one year, Hlatky says.
Meanwhile, the majority of the construction on the Academic Training Center — which is the size of six football fields — is complete. U.S. Marine Col. Arthur Tomassetti, wing vice commander, says that the first full-mission system trainer, a simulation-based device, is being installed; it will take about 90 days to become operational. The wing is slated to receive eight of them, though there is space for 10. The wing eventually will operate 59 F-35s.