[Avionics Today 09-04-2015] When the first two F-35A Lightning IIs touched down at Hill Air Force Base (AFB) on Wednesday, pilots were using the latest generation helmet to fly the fifth generation fighter jet. By integrating three advanced technologies — helmet-mounted display, head up display, and visor projected night vision — the Gen III Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS) allows the F-35 to become the first tactical fighter jet in 50 years without a traditional Head-Up Display system (HUD).
Gen III HMDS. Photo: Rockwell Collins.
"It's a biocular system so it has displays for both eyes, not just one, like many previous helmets for previous generation fighter jets have featured," Rob McKillip, senior director of Joint Strike Fighter HMDS programs at Rockwell Collins told Avionics Magazine. Rockwell Collins ESA Vision Systems LLC, a joint venture between Rockwell Collins and Elbit Systems, developed the Gen III HMDS. "One of the key features of the jet is there’s no HUD on the F-35, all previous fighters have a HUD and the key part of that is, first off, you save the money in the weight on the jet. That’s an important requirement for us in that, so when the pilot looks forward in the jet, he sees a virtual HUD that gives all the information he would normally have without the added cost and weight of a HUD. In order to do that you have much higher accuracy requirements because you have to be able to aim non-smart weapons with the system."
Integrating the night vision capability right into the helmet is a major advantage for F-35 pilots too. Lockheed Martin Test Pilot David Nelson, who has been training at Edwards Air Force Base with the Gen III HMDS, told Avionics Magazine the increased size of the night vision camera on the Gen III is huge for night flying.
"I think the biggest thing that changes from a pilot appreciation point of view, is they put a new night camera in the helmet," said Nelson, pointing out that the aperture of the camera is about twice as big as the previous one. "I used to have a clear preference to use the DAS for my night vision system; now that we have the Gen III helmet, it depends on conditions. If infrared is what I want to see, I’ll go with DAS, and if the amplified light is what I want to see, I’ll go with the helmet camera."
Everything about the Gen III HMDS is designed to enhance the fighter pilot's precision, efficiency, and safety, said McKillip. For example, pilots using the system can look at a target to aim their weapons while maintaining spatial orientation of their surroundings and continually monitoring flight information. According to Nelson, the pilot also has a high level of control over what symbology and information is displayed in their field of vision on the HMDS.
"On the touchscreen there is an HMD page that has all the features for manipulating what’s in the virtual HUD. There’s onboard sight symbology, which looks just like the legacy HUD from an F-16 or an F-22; anything that has a hardware HUD, this is a very close duplication of that. It has airspeed on the left, altitude on the right. It has a pitch ladder for attitude in the middle. It takes all of about 10 seconds for any pilot to get used to this projected HUD," said Nelson. "We can de-clutter it, so if the pilot thinks there’s too much information on there, he can remove layers of information as he chooses so its down to just the bare minimum he needs to digest any type of high intensity tactical situation. He may want less information on there and he can tailor that. Also we have switches on the stick that allows us to put night vision up and switch between the DAS … and helmet cam, it goes back and forth, it is really easy."
The Gen III helmet is scheduled to be introduced into the U.S. fleet in low rate initial production Lot 7 in 2016. McKillip said that now the focus for Rockwell Collins will be to ramp up global sustainment to support the helmet in the field as production ramps up on the F-35.
“Our focus going forward is, as the jet ramps up from 30 a year up to well over 100, our focus is on making sure we can produce high quality helmets and have the on-time delivery the customer needs,” said Mckillip. “The global footprint of those jets is going to expand dramatically. We are making sure we have the service and sustainment assets in the field to support the jet.”