Problems with the F-35’s ejection seat and helmet could make certain emergency escapes from the plane potentially fatal for pilots weighing less than 200 pounds, Roll Call reports.
Low-speed ejections from the aircraft, which could become necessary in emergencies during take-off or landing, could cause fatal whiplash or extreme injury because of ongoing issues with the ejection seat and the heavy weight of the F-35’s helmet.
According to a written statement from an unnamed senior Air Force official cited by Roll Call, “pilots between 136 and 199 are at a serious-level risk” of injury or death when wearing the F-35’s new helmet.
Previously, it was thought that low-speed ejections from the F-35 were only dangerous to pilots weighing less than 136 pounds. It was originally believed that the ejection seats, which are constructed by contractor Martin-Baker, was the primary culprit.
During simulated low-speed ejections, the heavy forces at play during the acceleration or deceleration of the advanced fighter jet would snap the neck of light-weight dummies. It was at first thought that this problem was caused by the ejection seats rotating too far forwards. This movement, combined with the force of ejecting from the aircraft, would snap the dummies’ necks.
However, according to the Air Force official that Roll Call cites, it now appears that the added weight of the latest version of the F-35 pilots’ helmet also makes the ejections dangerous.
After it became clear that seat movement and the heavy weight of the helmet contributed to possibly lethal low-speed ejections, the F-35 program did not fully conduct follow-up tests on heavier dummies to see if they were also at risk, Roll Call reported.
“The program office has chosen not to investigate this weight range yet but plans to as part of the qualification testing of any adopted solution,” the official said.
Roll Call notes that tests have shown that pilots weighing under 136 pounds face a 98% chance of a major or fatal neck injury during low-speed ejections. Documents from the F-35 program state that pilots between 136 and 165 pounds face a 23% chance of major injury or death during low speed ejections.
The issue is currently being investigated, but currently pilots weighing under 136 pounds — which is an incredibly small minority of the F-35 pilots — have been barred from flying the aircraft. The issue reflects a wider range of problems that have characterised the development of the fifth-generation fighter.
A report from an F-35 pilot in June detailed how the new plane is less manoeuvrable than the F-16 fighter that it was built to replace. This resulted in the F-35 underperoming during a mock dogfight with the earlier plane.
In addition, the F-35 has encountered issues with its engines, its next-generation helmet, and its onboard software system. The F-35B variety is also not expected to be equipped to carry the plane’s most advanced weapons until 2022.