WASHINGTON — Weeks after Defense News revealed that the military services had restricted lightweight pilots from flying the F-35 joint strike fighter, the US Air Force officially acknowledged an increased risk of neck damage during ejection to middleweight pilots as well.In a news release issued Oct. 16, the Air Force confirmed a Defense News report that pilots under 136 pounds are currently barred from flying the fifth-generation aircraft, expected to be the backbone of American airpower for decades to come. It also acknowledged an “elevated level of risk” for pilots between 136 and 165 pounds.”We expect the manufacturer to find and implement a solution,” said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James in the statement.Testers this summer discovered an increased risk of neck damage when a lightweight pilot is ejecting from the plane.
The usual F-35 critics are coming out and using this as an example that the F-35 program can simply do no right.
Well, maybe so. But there’s a bit of nuance here you should be aware of.
The F-35 is the first jet designed since the decision to open fighter planes to females. And so it is the first to be built with the tendency of women to be smaller and lighter than their male counterparts in mind. That means the Martin Baker US16E seat was designed with a wider envelope of suitable pilot weights than any seat before it. If there’s another operational ejection seat that’s cleared to carry a 103 pound pilot, that’s surely news to me.
The other issue here is that the F-35 (and thus the MB US16E) is the first jet designed with helmet mounted displays in mind. The seat designers were well aware that helmet mounted displays mean heavier helmets, which means the inertia is greater than in other ejection scenarios, and the risk of a head displacement is greater than in other previous designs. And so they’ve taken steps to mitigate that risk. For instance, the US16E uses airbags mounted at the top of the seat to keep the pilot’s head from moving left or right.
And finally, the issue at hand here with lightweight pilots? This is the only seat in the inventory that has ever studied this parameter. You’d think after 70 years, ejection seats are relatively easy to design. But the fact is, they have to operate in such a wide range of speed and altitudes, and complete a variety of tasks in precision timing. They grow ever more complex. For instance, if you are forced to eject at high speed and high altitude, you want the seat to do things quite a bit differently than if you must eject at low speed and low altitude.
The US16E is the single most tested ejection seat during its development ever. Given the development costs, common sense suggests the proper answer isn’t fixing the issue associated with pilots in the 103 to 136 weight range. That population is so small, it makes far more sense to restrict those pilots to other aircraft, and save the money.
Finally, no matter how sophisticated a seat is, ejection will always be fraught with possibilities for injury or even death. Military aviation is far safer today than it was a generation ago. But even today, it is a hazardous undertaking, and we still lose fine men and women to those hazards.