Officials with the Pentagon’s F-35 program office remain tight-lipped about a troubling issue with the Joint Strike Fighter‘s helmet night-vision camera that forced a test pilot to land “in a fog” on an amphibious ship last fall.
But they say improvements to the software in the pricey helmet are underway and will be ready for testing this fall.
The problem landing came to light this month, when the Flight Test Safety Committee posted videos from a May workshop in McLean, Virginia to its website. The footage can be found here and begins at the 28 minute 30 second mark.
In one of the workshop sessions, Marine Lt. Col. Tom Fields, F-35 government flight test director, showed a short video of the landing in question, which took place during the third and final iteration of shipboard developmental testing for the Marines‘ F-35B aboard the amphibious assault ship America.
Newly-cleared NAVAIR video shows F-35B landing blind on LHA due to HMD glitch. Quote:"We got real lucky that night." https://t.co/DnSfo62274 pic.twitter.com/iJlUaTVmMe— Stephen Trimble (@FG_STrim) July 9, 2017
The landing was supposed to test the pilot’s ability to land vertically on the ship in low-light night conditions. But in the footage, the shape of the ship is almost entirely obscured through the helmet display, and the pilot repeatedly swings his head to the right, looking for any familiar landmarks to help him find the designated landing spot.
Erik Gutekunst, a flying qualities engineer who was in the control room for the landing, said in a video interview that he got the “heebie jeebies” recalling the specifics of that night.
“Once [the pilot] got in the hover and had crossed over the spot, it became very clear that the picture he was working with was unsatisfactory for doing any sort of operation in very close vicinity of the ship,” he said.
Nick Bartlett, another flying qualities engineer, said it was “almost like a fog” for the pilot as he tried to peer through the display to find the ship.
“As soon as he took off, the way he talked, I was like, ‘this is not good,'” he said.
A spokesman for the F-35 Joint Program Office, Joe DellaVedova, told Military.com only that the night-vision camera on the helmet display “did not perform as expected” under low light conditions and increased the pilot’s workload during landing.
“There are several software changes being made that will significantly improve the night-vision camera low light level performance,” he said. “These changes will be implemented in the next few months and available for testing this fall.”
The F-35 helmet, which costs $400,000 per copy and is designed to allow pilots to “see through” the aircraft via externally mounted cameras, is no stranger to glitches.
Pilots have previously complained about the contrast of the display’s ambient light during night landings, saying the “green glow” it generates can be distracting or blinding on dark nights. In December, Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, then-program executive officer for the F-35, said the symbology on the helmet was still too distracting despite attempted software fixes. Engineers continued to work that problem, he said.
The video that recently surfaced appears to indicate a new nighttime visibility problem, in addition to others that have been publicly identified.
In his presentation, Fields gave credit to the pilot, who positioned himself on the flight deck using two generators he remembered walking past on his way to the aircraft.
“I think his words later were, ‘screw you, ship, I’m landing on you,'” Fields said. “We got lucky. There is no way around it. We got very lucky that night.”