F-35 Program Stops Alternate Helmet Display Development

 - October 18, 2013, 11:05 AM
The F-35 Joint Program Office will focus on maturing the fighter’s helmet-mounted display system to third-generation standard. (Photo: Rockwell Collins)

The F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) halted the development of an alternate helmet-mounted display system (HMDS) for the Joint Strike Fighter, signaling the resolution of a potentially serious technical complication the program faced. In September 2011, F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin awarded a contract to BAE Systems to develop an alternate HMDS after the Pentagon identified deficiencies with the original helmet system developed by Rockwell Collins and Elbit Systems of America. The HMDS is critical to flying the F-35, which was designed without a pilot’s head-up display.

The JPO announced on October 10 that it has decided to stop the alternate HMDS development to focus on bringing the second-generation, or “Gen 2,” helmet system that F-35 pilots are using for training and testing to a “fully compliant” Gen 3 standard. The Gen 3 HMDS will be introduced during F-35 low rate initial production lot 7 in 2016 and complete test and development the following year. The U.S. Marine Corps, which plans to declare initial operational capability of its F-35Bs in 2015, will start operations with an improved version of the Gen 2 helmet.

In a review of the F-35’s flight-test progress in 2011, the Department of Defense identified the HMDS as one of several program risks. It found that the helmet system was deficient in the areas of night-vision acuity, display jitter during aircraft buffeting and image latency from the F-35’s electro-optical distributed aperture system, which combined detracted from mission tasks and the use of the display as a primary flight reference. The Gen 3 helmet “will include an improved night vision camera, new liquid crystal displays, automated alignment and software improvements,” according to the JPO. It said that a “cost guarantee” made by Lockheed Martin, Rockwell Collins and Elbit resulted in a 12-percent reduction from the previous cost of the HMDS. The program will recoup $45 million in funds it had originally allocated for the development of the BAE Systems alternate helmet.

“During the past two years, the JPO and Lockheed Martin used a disciplined systems engineering approach and conducted dedicated helmet flight-tests to develop solutions to address the helmet’s technical challenges,” the program office said. “Improvements to the Gen 2 helmet are planned and being phased into production to support F-35 mission requirements.”

Lockheed Martin said more than 100 F-35 pilots have flown more than 6,000 sorties with the current helmet system. “The government’s decision to proceed exclusively with the principle helmet is indicative of their confidence in the helmet’s performance and the successful resolution of previously identified technical challenges,” stated Lorraine Martin, the company’s F-35 program executive vice president and general manager.

The Rockwell Collins HMDS joint venture with Elbit, formerly called Vision Systems International, has been replaced by a new organization, Rockwell Collins ESA Vision Systems. “We’re looking forward to the continued development and production of the third-generation F-35 HMDS, which will offer even greater capabilities while reducing overall cost for this critical program,” said Rockwell Collins CEO Kelly Ortberg.