WASHINGTON — Weeks after Defense News revealed that the military services has restricted lightweight pilots from flying the F-35 joint strike fighter, the US Air Force officially acknowledged an increased risk of neck damage during ejection to middleweight pilots as well.

In a news release issued Oct. 16, the Air Force confirmed a Defense News report that pilots who weigh less than under 136 pounds are currently barred from flying the fifth-generation aircraft, expected to be the backbone of American airpower for decades to come. It also acknowledged an "elevated level of risk" for pilots between 136 and 165 pounds.

"While the probability of an ejection in this slow speed regime remains very low, estimated at one in 100,000 flight hours, the risk of a critical injury in that circumstance is currently higher than legacy fighter ejection seats," the service warned.

The seat is supposed to be certified for pilots weighing between 103 and 245 pounds.

"Based on the remote probability of an event occurring requiring ejection from the aircraft and pilot weight considerations, the airworthiness authorities recommended and the Air Force has accepted continuation of flight for pilots falling within the 136 to 165 pound range," the statement continued. "No ejection system is without risk. The Air Force continues to work with the F-35 Joint Program Office to ensure the F-35 system meets this requirement."

"We expect the manufacturer to find and implement a solution," said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James in the statement.

Defense News first reported on concerns about damage to pilots necks due to ejection on Oct. 1. The issue has since spread to Congress, where members of the House Armed Services Committee have pledged to investigate.

Interviews in recent weeks indicate the added weight and bulk of the new F-35 helmet complicates the problem. It is still unclear whether the blame rests squarely with the helmet, or the seat, or is somewhere in between.

The F-35 program office is trying to improve safety for lightweight pilots during an ejection by reducing the weight of the new helmet, built by Rockwell Collins and Elbit Systems of America, which is on its third iteration due to repeated technical problems.

Rockwell Collins is now on contract to build a Generation III "Light" helmet, David Nieuwsma, company vice president of strategy and business development for government systems, said Tuesday.

Email: amehta@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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