Official Confirms 'Serious' Risk to Wide Swath of F-35 Pilots

Most F-35 pilots who have to eject during take-off or landing while wearing the latest helmet face a “serious” danger of major injury or death, a senior Air Force official said in a written response to a CQ query.

In addition to pilots weighing 136 pounds or less, “pilots between 136 and 199 are at a serious level risk” when wearing the heavier helmet, the official said.

The statement represents the first official confirmation that the bulk of F-35 pilots, not just the lightest ones, are at risk of dying from whiplash in certain scenarios in the military’s $159 million warplanes — at least unless and until ejection seat flaws are fixed and the helmet’s weight is cut.

It is a risk military officials say they are willing to accept, mostly on the grounds that ejections are rare events.

The risk assessment for pilots of average weight is the product of two things, the official said. First, in tests, mannequins weighing 103 and 135 pounds with the heavier new helmet on their heads broke their necks. Second, no testing has yet been done on mannequins between 136 and 244 pounds, the official said.

In other words, 14 years into the F-35 program — the next generation fighter for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps — officials have yet to fully test how the physics of ejection would affect a significant portion of the pilot population.

“The program office has chosen not to investigate this weight range yet but plans to as part of the qualification testing of any adopted solution,” the official said.

The issue is likely to arise at a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing Wednesday at which the F-35 program manager and the Air Force’s point man on the plane are set to testify.

“When the Air Force found out the F-35 ejector seat could kill pilots under 136 pounds, the first thing it should have done was order tests to find out whether it could also kill pilots in the other weight classes who are flying these aircraft every day,” said Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a member of Armed Services who has become vocal on the F-35 jet.

“It is unbelievable that the F-35 program office would not seek out these tests immediately, in order to find out what kind of risks they continue to run with pilots’ lives," she said. "We need to know what kind of danger these pilots are exposed to and how the Air Force plans to mitigate it — and we need to know now.”

Leaders Don’t Acknowledge Risk to All Pilots

Pilots weighing less than 136 pounds are not even allowed to fly the new fighter jet now. That’s because tests have shown those pilots’ center of gravity lands them in an awkward position when the ejection seat’s parachute is released, causing a 98 percent risk of a major and perhaps fatal neck injury during take-off and landing ejections, which occur at speeds near 160 knots, or about 184 miles per hour, according to officials and internal Pentagon documents.

What’s more, the documents show, pilots weighing between 136 and 165 pounds are also at “serious risk” of fatal injury in the same scenarios — a 23 percent chance of major injury or death — due to the physics of the ejection seat, made by Martin-Baker Aircraft Co. Ltd. of the United Kingdom.

The Air Force secretary and chief of staff were quoted in an Oct. 16 statement on the service’s website acknowledging the ban on the lightest-weight pilots (only one such pilot was reportedly affected).

The statement also confirmed the serious risk to pilots weighing from 136 to 165 pounds, which CQ was first to report.

“Based on the remote probability of an event occurring requiring ejection from the aircraft and pilot weight considerations, the airworthiness authorities recommended and the Air Force has accepted continuation of flight for pilots falling within the 136 to 165 pound range,” the Air Force statement said.

However, the Air Force website statement made no mention of any risk to pilots above 165 pounds.

By comparison, the senior Air Force official responded to a CQ query by saying there is a “serious risk” to pilots who weigh up to 199 pounds when ejecting near take-off or landing while wearing the latest “Generation III” pilot helmet. That helmet weighs about 5.1 pounds, more than its predecessors, because it has new and heavier night-vision sensors. 

The statement was the first official word supporting information about risks to pilots up to 200 pounds that CQ first reported in articles last week.

Defense Department officials are working hard to reduce the helmet’s weight by about a half-pound. They say those few ounces have a considerable effect on the head of a pilot ejecting at least a dozen times the force of gravity.

Officials are also jerry-rigging the ejection seat to reduce the risk to pilots.