Lockheed Martin describes their F-35 Lightning II as a 5th Generation combat jet that combines advanced stealth capabilities with fighter aircraft speed and agility, fully-fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced logistics and sustainment.
Essentially, it’s a stealthier version of Boeing’s F-18, which replaced the F-14s made famous by the movie Top Gun. With all that stealth and agility comes the need for more complex and expensive controls for the naval aviator in the cockpit. Enter Rockwell Collins’ F-35 Gen III Helmet Mounted Display System.
Integrated with sensors throughout the aircraft, it provides pilots with airspeed, heading, altitude, targeting information and warnings right on the helmet’s visor. The Distributed Aperture System also streams real-time images and video from six infrared cameras mounted around the aircraft, allowing pilots to get a look from all angles, even directly below them. So unfortunately, there’s no need for Maverick’s infamous inverted snapshot.
The $400,000 carbon fiber helmet also provides night vision through an integrated camera.
However, for nearly six years the Navy has been trying fix a significant LED glitch that presents itself as a green glow in dark conditions. The glow is disruptive enough that pilots can’t see the lighting on aircraft carriers at night – making it extremely difficult for pilots to meet carrier landing qualifications.
The Navy has tried to fix the helmets for nearly six years through software upgrades, but their only real solution has been to reserve these types of landings for more experienced pilots. Turning the display’s brightness down leads to the background glow dominating the display, while turning the brightness up means pilots can’t see enough of the real world to safety navigate.
However, advancements in organic LEDS could help reduce that pesky glow and provide a crisper picture. The brightness adjustments also allow for greater pilot customization. The problem is that field testing for the OLED display won’t be ready until, at best, next year.
Until then, these $400,000 helmets are viewed by some, as Iceman might say, unsafe and potentially dangerous.