Navy official skeptical F-35 helmet will be ready for fall carrier test

By Lee Hudson / July 31, 2017

The Navy's top Joint Strike Fighter official, Rear Adm. Roy Kelley, is skeptical the modified helmet that fixes green-glow problems will be ready for an at-sea test this fall.

Kelley, the service's F-35C fleet integration office director, told Inside the Navy during a July 25 interview at the Pentagon the helmet's organic LED technology seems promising.

"We've asked them to push hard to accelerate this part of the program," he said. "We'll see where the technology allows us to go, but right now we're very optimistic, we expect that they're going to do helmet tests off of land operating from air bases."

Once the helmet shows it reduces green-glow on land, testers will take the modified system to an aircraft carrier for sea tests, he said. Green-glow typically occurs at night and makes it difficult for pilots to see certain objects.

James Ruocco, F-35 chief engineer, told ITN during a May interview his team performed an assessment two weeks ago at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, MD, on the Gen III helmet's green-glow problem.

As part of the assessment, the program set up a room at Pax to emulate the nighttime environment, Ruocco said. Testers compared the visibility of the current helmet and a helmet outfitted with organic LED technology and compared their visibility.

"The difference being the advanced matrix CD lets light leak around the symbology. That's how you get the green-glow," Ruocco said. "The other one does not."

Ruocco's plan was to gather sufficient data so that the modified helmet could be tested at sea in late September. Kelley said it would be a "perfect match" if the helmet and the aircraft's new nosegear could be tested during the same at-sea period.

"It's in the realm of the possible but it's not something I would say has a high probability of happening," Kelley said.

Another technical challenge that must be remedied before the Navy declares initial operational capability for the F-35C is the nosegear oscillations that impact catapult ride quality.

During Developmental Test-3, pilots reported rough rides and that the nose was oscillating more than it does with other platforms, Kelley said.

"It was uncomfortable for the aircrew both because of bouncing in the seat, but also because the display on the helmet was moving as well," he said.

Kelley said the helmet display moving was a safety issue because pilots did not have adequate situational awareness. The government determined the problem was similar to what was experienced with F-18 development.

"They looked at what was done to solve that; one of the solutions was to adjust the holdback bar," Kelley said. "On a catapult there's a holdback bar that holds the airplane at full power, and when the shuttle pushes it off the front, the shuttle pulls the airplane forward."

Engineers reduced the tension, causing the oscillation to be not as great on the nosegear. The nosegear fix completed ground testing. One of the pilots who participated in the ground testing was also on the aircraft carrier during DT-3.

There were enough improvements that the fixes will be tested at sea this fall. "I've made sure both the joint program office and Lockheed Martin understand there's improvements and we appreciate that, but we don't know if this is going to solve the problem," Kelley said. "It's kind of a fair warning to say there may be additional requirements we may have to put into it."

Kelley said the Navy does not want to redesign the aircraft, but the jet has to be safe to operate aboard an aircraft carrier.

Meanwhile, Kelley said the Pentagon plans to wrap up a Block 4 study this week. It includes a "laundry list" of items the service and international partners want for future capabilities. The study assesses schedule, cost and technical challenges.

"We want to continue to improve on the radar systems and its capabilities, the electronic warfare systems that it has onboard to continue to adapt new technologies from there, and to keep pace with the threat," he said.

The service also needs the F-35C to transfer information from various platforms in a relatively easy manner because it operates as part of a carrier strike group, Kelley said.