Pilots of the RAF’s new F-35 stealth multirole combat aircraft, which came into service in June 2018 with the illustrious 617 “Dambusters" Squadron, are equipped with a unique electronic helmet.
The electronics-packed headgear offers pilots not only protection but a mass of information including cameras with thermal sensors, or night vision that follows their gaze, allowing them to “see through” the plane for near-complete situational awareness.
But all that cutting-edge technology adds to the weight of the helmet. At a shade over five pounds the helmet is too heavy for female pilots to wear, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston has admitted.
MP Tobias Ellwood, the Commons defence committee chairman , said: “There needs to be a second lighter helmet for females to use.”
The US Air Force, which has already run into the same problem, has commissioned the development of a lighter-weight design but at the cost of £250,000 each to keep “his and hers” helmets in store, it could soon become impossible.
Each helmet is custom-fitted to a 3D scan of the individual pilot's head, making for a perfect fit.
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Air Chief Marshal Wigston told the committee on Wednesday (February 1): “The lighter helmet that would allow lighter aircrew, so not just women but lighter aircrew, to fly the F-35 . . . we would have challenges in clearing it in safety terms because it does not give the pilot the protection that the other helmet has.
“On a case-by-case basis if a woman came through or a light person came through the flying training scheme and there was an operational benefit for that person to be flying Lightning, then we could make the risk case for flying with a different helmet.”
The real danger with the heavier helmet comes if a pilot ever has to eject.
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According to Defence News, the third-gen helmet’s 5.1 pound weight makes the already-dangerous procedure even deadlier.
The US Air Force admits there is an "elevated risk" for pilots weighing between nine and 11 stone to sustain neck damage, and pilots weighing less than nine stone aren't allowed to fly the Lightning at all.
Air Chief Marshal Wigston said that, on a case-by-case basis, if a female, or very light male, pilot’s aptitude meant they were more suited to flying the Lightning than a Typhoon, the RAF could consider issuing them with a “less safe helmet”.
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