WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has accelerated its projected timeline to implement a series of fixes to safety issues with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter's ejection seat, Defense News has learned.
The US Air Force told Defense News last week that the three planned solutions to recent problems with the jet's escape system would not be fully implemented until early 2018. However, the Joint Program Office, which oversees all three service variants of the F-35, said this week the government and industry team is working hard to accelerate that schedule.
The Pentagon now estimates the services will be able to implement the three parts of the complete solution in October 2017, JPO spokesman Joe DellaVedova told Defense News in a Jan. 15 email. At that time, the services will re-evaluate whether to lift weight restrictions on lightweight F-35 pilots, he said.
The news comes at a critical time for the F-35 program, which is preparing for a significant ramp-up in production in the next few years. The Marine Corps declared its variant of the Lockheed Martin-build fighter jet operational last summer, and the Air Force is scheduled to do the same this year.
The Pentagon has been working to address safety concerns with the F-35 escape system since last summer, when Defense News revealed fear about increased risk of neck injury to pilots during low-speed ejections prompted the services to ground lightweight pilots. Testing of the seat, built by UK company Martin-Baker, last August showed an "elevated" risk of injury for F-35 pilots weighing under 165 pounds, and an "unacceptable" risk for those under 136 pounds, according to the Air Force.
The Pentagon is working with Martin Baker and Lockheed Martin on a three-part solution: designing a lighter helmet to reduce pressure on the pilot's neck; installing a switch for lightweight pilots that will delay deployment of the main parachute; and mounting a "head support panel" between the parachute risers that will protect the pilot's head from moving backwards during parachute opening.
The head support panel and switch for lighter weight pilots are currently being tested as part of a seat qualification process planned to be completed in October 2016, DellaVedova said. Modification kits that will be used to retrofit seats currently in operation will be available by November 2016 for fleet implementation, he estimated.
The JPO is also working to design, test and certify a lighter version of the Gen III helmet. Initial deliveries of the new helmet are scheduled to begin in October 2017, DellaVedova said.
"At that time, the services will be able to implement all three parts of the complete solution to lift the weight restriction for pilots less than 136 pounds and mitigate neck injury risks for all F-35 pilots," DellaVedova said.
The JPO, Lockheed and Martin Baker will continue to work to reach a solution as quickly as possible, he added.
"The safety of our pilots is paramount," DellaVedova said.