Official Claims 'No Elevated Risk' To F-35 Pilots, Despite Evidence to Contrary

Pilots now flying the F-35 fighter jet are not at any unusual risk due to an unsafe ejection seat, the program’s director told a House panel Wednesday, even though an internal Pentagon document he signed appears to contradict that statement.

The F-35 program has barred pilots weighing 136 pounds or less from flying the plane due to worries they could suffer fatal whiplash due to flaws in the seat and a new, heavier aircrew helmet. That restriction has affected two pilots, officials say.  

The more pressing question is whether the majority of pilots, those weighing up to 200 pounds, are in jeopardy. 

Under questioning from Jackie Speier, D-Calif., at a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing, the program manager, Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, confirmed that F-35 ejection safety tests have not yet been done on mannequins weighing between 136 and 244 pounds — the weight of most pilots.

But such pilots of average weight are “in these planes now, testing them,” Speier said. “Are we putting any of them at risk?”

“The answer to that question is, ‘No, ma’am,’” Bogdan replied, “because we have done the risk analysis on the test points that we have had on the ejection seat. What we have found is the only area where we have a problem today is with the lightweight pilots weighing less than 136 pounds.  . . .  The areas we have tested indicate that — in the heart of the envelope for the heart of the pilot population — there is not any increased risk of injury at all.” 

Speier is the top Democrat on the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee and attended Wednesday’s hearing of the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee because of her oversight of the F-35 program. Wednesday’s hearing saw skeptical questioning from several members of the panel from both parties.

CQ Reporting Probed

The House members and the Pentagon officials were reacting to a series of CQ stories revealing — largely through internal Pentagon documents — how senior defense officials are worried about the safety of the F-35 ejection seat, which is made by Martin-Baker Aircraft Company Ltd. of the United Kingdom.

Bogdan testified that CQ had misinterpreted the documents, but he did not refute the accuracy of anything CQ has reported. He also said an “investigation” is underway to determine how the internal materials became public. 

His comments at the hearing were his first on the subject, since his office has declined to answer CQ’s repeated queries about the issue. 

The nearly $400 billion F-35 fighter jet program is the most expensive military initiative in history and is critical to the revenue of its prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, a major campaign contributor and lobbying force in Congress.

Official Parses Risk Assessment

In seeming contrast to his answer to Speier, Bogdan’s testimony at other moments in the hearing and in comments to reporters afterward clarified that there is in fact a good chance of injury to pilots weighing more than 136 pounds, even if he minimized its significance. 

Bogdan said the risk of potentially fatal whiplash to pilots weighing less than 136 pounds is 1 in 50,000 and, for pilots weighing 136 to 165 pounds, it is 1 in 200,000.

But he acknowledged to reporters that this probability figure factors in the low odds that a pilot will have to eject — not the risk of injury in the event of ejection. 

"He said there's no risk to pilots, and then admits that there's a one in four risk of killing pilots when they eject," said Speier in a statement after the hearing. "That sounds like a substantial risk to me and we can't place our pilots at that kind of risk."

An ejection seat is designed to save a pilot’s life in the unlikely event he or she has to eject. Lawmakers want to know whether the F-35's seat will save a pilot’s life — or end it — if an ejection happens, not how likely that ejection is.

An internal Pentagon assessment of the risk from the F-35 ejection seat found a 23 percent chance of major injury or death — officially dubbed a “serious risk” — for pilots between 136 and 165 pounds when ejecting during take-off or landing. 

When ejection occurs close to the land or sea, there’s no time to release a smaller parachute that lessens the force of the main parachute’s release. The Martin-Baker seat ends up putting lighter weight pilots in a position that is potentially deadly when the parachute is shot out, tests have shown.

Bogdan himself signed the safety assessment Sept. 14 and formally accepted the risk, as have the Air Force and Navy, which fly variants of the jet.

Bogdan acknowledged to reporters after the hearing that the 23 percent level of risk is there during an ejection. But he said that the odds of an ejection are not great, and that’s why the risk is similar to that accepted on other weapon programs.

In addition, there is more peril to pilots that Bogdan was not asked about Wednesday, according to Defense Department experts and documents. 

Senior Air Force officials, after considering both the test results so far and the lack of testing on mannequins that weigh what most pilots weigh, have determined there is still a “serious risk” for F-35 pilots weighing as much as 199 pounds while ejecting from the plane during take-off and landing. 

That covers a major portion of the pilots now flying the 134 F-35s fielded at several bases.

Bogdan said the service is working on technical fixes to the ejection seat problems and has found ways officials believe will lighten the helmets.

But it will be at least a year before Congress will know if those proposed solutions have worked, he said.