The two world wars have taught the world that the expenditure is never too much when speaking of defence and security. And over the years, gargantuan investments on research and development have been put into the sector not only by the developed and superpower nations but the developing ones as well. However, topping that list, needless to say, is the United States of America. A few months back, the country made it to headlines in India for something other than what its President, Donald Trump Tweeted. It was for a humble offer that was extended to India to ditch the S-400 fighter jets from Russia for their in-house developed F-35 aircraft.
But, the media hype that followed Prime Minister’s visit to the US, speculating it for the same, is in the past now. And that is not why we are here. The fact that the controversy-ridden aircraft was so generously offered to India is merely the news this time. Because we are here to talk about the helmet for all its pilots. And the fact that it costs approximately Rs 2.8 crore apiece.
At a press briefing that was held in 2015, US Air Force’s Chief of Staff Mark A. Welsh III said that the F-35’s pilot helmet is much more than a helmet, it is a workspace and is an interpretation of the battlespace. Advancing miles from the time when pilots used to wear a pair of goggles and a leather cap to protect themselves from freezing, the new F-35 aircraft’s helmet is a weapon on its own. Hence, here are a few features of the helmet that reasons its price tag.
To begin with, an F-35 helmet gives its wearer X-ray vision and access to the six cameras that are embedded into the skin of the aircraft. During a flight, as the pilots move their head, the feed is stitched together in real-time letting them see through the aircraft to what is below or behind them. Not only this, as the feed is also overlaid with crucial flight path information and pops up information about ground targets, all in real-time.
This advanced vision is transmitted to the wearer’s helmet by tracking the pilot’s head relative to a magnetic field transmitted from the seat. Hence, as the pilot moves, the helmet detects a change in the field and sends in new information. While early versions of this system exhibited lag, the new ones are claimed to be completed void of it.
Unlike previous generation jet-fighters which had a head-up display at the nose of the cockpit, the F-35 helmet lets the pilot have the same targeting data in his helmet. Which means that the pilot could be looking anywhere and still have access to vital targeting data. The helmets patch in forward-looking infrared cameras and infrared search and track radar providing info on target identity and distance.
Night Vision and other trickeries
Apart from the X-Ray vision on the helmet, an F-35 helmet also has night-vision that does not call for the need of downing night vision goggles mid-flight. Additionally, the helmet also supports thermal vision which searches and tracks heat signatures. In a nutshell, there is no getting away from an F-35 pilot.
Similar to other modern fighter-jet helmets, an F-35 helmet also has a picture on picture display which means pilots can see small windows that can be used for a variety of purposes such as a video feed from another plane or perhaps friendly UAV data.
As mandatory as it should be, an F-35 helmet comes with reinforced Kevlar designs that make it bulletproof during heavy combat or emergency ejection. In addition to this, the helmet also insulates the pilot and helps in better noise reduction to help them focus. They also use spatial audio technology to enhance a flyer/s situational awareness. For instance, if a jet is being targeted from the left. The pilot will hear an audio ping from that side.
A Lengthy Fitting Process
The fitting process of an F-35 is exclusive to each pilot which means that a 3D scan of the pilot’s head is first taken and fed into a database. This database is then accessed by a group of technicians which designs software that drives milling machines that cut the foam liner by laser. Following this, the pilot gets his eyes measured by a pupilometer to align the optic package to within just two millimetres off the centre of each pupil. This helps in projecting the image just in the field of vision of the pilot reducing eye strain and fatigue. Post this, pilots are expected to return for a final fitting of the liner so that the vision and its display feeds are adjusted to ensure a single fused image appears.
Technicians then spend 2 days to shape the helmet liner to fir individual pilot’s noggin to make sure that the optical sensors are perfectly aligned with the pilot’s pupils. Apart from that, these minute measurements also ensure that the helmet’s centre of gravity is always aligned with the pilot’s spine in order to prevent neck injuries during ejection or high-speed manoeuvres.