F-35A Lightning II in flight  (Source: Lockheed Martin)

F-35 helmet
Fixes are in the works, but short term solutions might involve heads-down displays in the cockpit

One of the more interesting components of the F-35 JSF is the futuristic Gen II Helmet Mounted Display System or HMDS. The helmet displays all critical flight information from the aircraft on the visor of the helmet rather than on a traditional HUD like most aircraft use.

The F-35 Gen III HMDs has many interesting features including a virtual HUD, video display that can show feeds from cameras mounted around the aircraft, and an opto-magnetic tracker. The helmet is also able to send the pilot feeds from night vision cameras mounted around the aircraft rather than the pilot having to wear night vision goggles, as is commonplace with other aircraft.

The problem with the helmets is that the video system has been error prone and suffers from various issues that make the helmet difficult for pilots to use. Defense News reports that among the issues with they helmet are video that lags behind where the pilot is actually looking and images that aren’t aligned correctly with what the pilot is seeing.

The night vision camera system also has significant issues that are more pronounced than the video issues with the daytime-use cameras. The company that developed the helmet for the F-35 is working to address the issues. In the near term Vice Adm. David Venlet, JSF program chief, says that fixes might include moving some of the imagery from the helmet to the head-down flat panel displays and having the pilot use conventional night vision goggles.

However, Venlet says, "We're not giving up on the requirement."

The helmet developer Vision Systems International (VSI) says that it has a long-term solution to the issues mapped out. VSI president Drew Brugal said, "We have several engineering changes, which we have integrated in a block plan."

Brugal also noted that some of the modifications have already been integrated into the first two low-rate production helmets. One of the fixes for the video issues was to slip a shim 8/1000th of an inch between the helmet shell and the video component. Brugal says that one helmet in testing has shown significant improvements with the modifications installed. Part of the issue with image jitter was found to be the magnetic tracker reacting to the ejection seat vibrations. 

VSI notes that it has written software that will overcome some of the jitter caused by the vibrations and in the future, it will install a small inertial measurement unit into the helmet to reduce the issue even more. The company hopes to eventually upgrade the helmet to color displays.

"Color is going to be incorporated into the future display. That's not part of our road map, but as we incorporate color into our other offerings, I would anticipate that color will part of the F-35 in the future," Brugal said.

The helmet was identified as one of the problem areas of the F-35 in a Pentagon report. The first production F-35A flew this week.

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