ABOARD THE USS GEORGE WASHINGTON — In coming days, five test pilots here will begin conducting night trials with a new software load for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter helmet that they believe will spell the end to a troubling issue.
Adjustments that decrease the contrast of the Generation III helmet-mounted display should allow pilots of the F-35C to land on aircraft carriers without having their view obscured by the display’s ambient light, said Tom Briggs, acting chief test engineer for the Navy.
The service tried out a different fix on its last round of carrier tests aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in 2015, but test pilots ultimately concluded they hadn’t completely solved the issue.
“You could describe it as looking through a dirty window,” Briggs said. “It’s not so bad on a really bright night. On a dark night it skewers outside light references for pilots. A pilot cannot pick up the lights on the carrier as well as he’d like to, he doesn’t necessarily pick up non-lighted signals on the ship as he’s taxiing around, he has a harder time picking out aircraft that are flying around.”
At $400,000 apiece, the F-35’s helmet is as high-tech as the aircraft itself, with display features that let pilots “see” through the plane’s skin and receive constantly updated information on the visor. The “green glow” problem with this visor display obscuring the field beyond it in dark conditions was first reported in 2012.
Briggs said two pilots had reported good results in an initial test with the new helmet update and officials were hopeful they have found the right solution. It’s especially crucial that this round of fixes works because the Navy is beginning to conduct carrier qualifications for operational pilots as well as test pilots on the F-35C, and they won’t be able to complete night qualifications until the problem is resolved.
Capt. James Christie, commanding officer of Strike Fighter Squadron-101, which had 12 pilot-instructors complete daytime carrier qualifications on the F-35C this week, said he hoped software updates would be approved and close to being retrofitted to all F-35 helmets by the end of the year.
Christie said the decreased contrast setting is likely to help all pilots who operate in especially dark environments, without aid from the ‘cultural light’ of nearby cities. But on carriers out in the middle of the ocean, it was crucial.
“I think we just kind of stomped our feet and said, ”we need to have this to be safe around the ship,'” he said.
Briggs said nighttime helmet tests were expected to kick off Aug. 20, during the darkest phase of the moon.
“So we’re going to go out on a really dark night and we’re going to do our final evaluation on the green glow,” he said. “And we think that that problem is solved.”
The third and final round of carrier tests for the F-35C will continue until Aug. 23. The aircraft, which will be used by both the Navy and the Marine Corps for carrier operations, is expected to reach initial operational capability near the end of 2018.