Lockheed Martin is focused on helping the U.S. Air Force achieve initial operational capability (IOC) of the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing variant as early as August. By the end of the year or early next year, the manufacturer plans to implement fixes to the aircraft’s ejection seat, which the Air Force has said presents a risk of injury to lighter-weight pilots. Since last fall, the service has restricted pilots weighing less than 136 pounds from flying the F-35A.
Briefing reporters at Lockheed Martin’s annual media day in Arlington, Va., on March 15, Jeff Babione, F-35 program general manager, said the manufacturer is supporting the Air Force’s plan to declare IOC with 12 jets sometime between August and December—similar to the way it supported the Marine Corps’ declaration of IOC for the F-35B last July. “A handful of modifications” must be completed on the F-35A, including one to the fuel system that ensures it can sustain high pressures during high-G maneuvering, he said.
Another emphasis is delivering the first F-35s to two new international customers—Japan and Israel—which will join Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK as operators of the fifth-generation fighter. Lockheed Martin expects Japan will take delivery of its first F-35A in September; Israel is expected to accept an F-35A in December. Both aircraft will be initially stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
The F-35A will begin initial operations with the U.S. Air Force with interim version 3I software; final 3F software that provides for its full complement of weapons and a broader set of missions will be tested in flight this summer. Its maintenance support backbone, called the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), will be Version 2.0.2, which adds component tracking of the jet’s Pratt & Whitney F135-PW-100 turbofan engine.
Acknowledging that Lockheed Martin may be “challenged” to ready the ALIS system for the Air Force by August—a concern raised by Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program executive officer—Babione said “perhaps we see 30-to-60 days pressure on being able to deploy a fully functioning ALIS 2.0.2. Our primary focus is making sure that it works; we owe our customer a functioning system that does what they ask it to do…I’m highly confident we’ll be able to do that during the time between August and December.”
The Air Force announced in October that it had restricted pilots weighing less than 136 pounds from flying the F-35A due to safety concerns over the aircraft’s Martin-Baker US16E ejection seat. The service requires that the seat be certified for pilots weighing between 103 and 245 pounds. Testing had revealed “an unacceptable risk of neck injury during parachute deployment/opening for lighter-weight pilots at low-speed conditions.” Babione said three identified fixes will be implemented by the end of the year or early next year.
Ejection-seat fixes include adding an adjustable weight switch to the seat that will delay the deployment of the main parachute in the case of lighter pilots; and mounting a fabric mesh between the parachute risers that will prevent the pilot’s head from moving backward when the parachute opens. The program has also developed a “light” version of the Rockwell Collins ESA Vision Systems third-generation helmet-mounted display system to reduce pressure on the pilot’s neck. The changes reduce the weight of the Gen 3 helmet from 5.1 pounds to 4.6 pounds.
“We took the shell and we took opportunities to strategically reduce material thickness within the shell, underneath the actual helmet electronics,” Babione explained. Fasteners used to hold the helmet assembly together have been replaced with lighter-weight material, and one of two visors—one for daylight conditions, one for darkness—is removed. The pilot will now change out the visor based on the lighting conditions.
“We have a really good path on how to correct this issue,” Babione said. “When you incorporate all of these changes, there will be no restrictions on pilot weight and no increased risk for any pilot weight in an F-35 ejection seat.”