WASHINGTON — The first test of a new, lightweight F-35 helmet was successful, according to the program office, a promising sign that the Pentagon can qualify and implement all three fixes to the jet's escape system by the end of the year.

On March 31 at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, Lockheed Martin's F-35 conducted the first test combining all three solutions designed to reduce the risk of neck injury to F-35 pilots during ejection, according to spokesman Joe DellaVedova. Once the full gamut of testing is completed, hopefully by the end of the summer, the JPO can begin implementing the two modifications to the ejection seat and issuing the new Generation III "light" helmet to the fleet, he said.

The recent sled test, conducted with a 103-pound mannequin, is the latest sign that the JPO can make good on its promise to finish the three design fixes by November, allowing the military services to lift restrictions on lightweight pilots flying the F-35. Last year, Defense News first reported that pilots under 136 pounds were barred from flying the fifth-generation aircraft after testers discovered an increased risk of neck damage to lightweight pilots ejecting from the plane. The US Air Force has also acknowledged an "elevated level of risk" for pilots between 136 and 165 pounds.

The prototype helmet tested last month weighs about 4.63 pounds, approximately 6 ounces lighter than the original Gen III helmet, and is designed to ease some strain on smaller pilots' necks during ejection.

Although the March 31 test was the first test of the new helmet, the JPO, Lockheed Martin and seat-maker Martin Baker have conducted at least seven other tests with the latest version of the seat, which is equipped with two modifications designed to reduce risk to pilots. The fixes to the ejection seat itself include a switch for lightweight pilots that will delay deployment of the main parachute, and a "head support panel," or HSP, a fabric panel sewn between the parachute risers that will protect the pilot’s head from moving backward during the parachute opening.

The program office has about another 10 tests planned, which will use a mix of low-, middle- and high-weight mannequins.

"This initial test had promising results and the F-35 enterprise is on a path to qualify the helmet ... by the end of this summer," DellaVedova told Defense News on Monday. "The lighter helmet expected to be fielded by the end of the year is in line with the seat timeframe as well."

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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