Practical applications for head scan technology in the F-35

Christopher Culley adjusts and displays an F-35 Lightning ll Generation III helmet-mounted display system at the Pilot Fit Facility at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. (US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ridge Shan)

The F-35 helmet is a work of incredible engineering. It was designed not only to protect its pilot from a variety of forces in the cockpit, but also to integrate the helmet-mounted displays and other necessary items required to operate the next-generation systems aboard the F-35 .

While the helmet is an essential tool for today’s pilots, effectively bringing all the data and information required for the mission right into their line of sight, it presents unique challenges when it comes to repair and maintenance.

A pilot could use a conventional helmet even if the fit was slightly wrong or wear and tear caused the visor to crack and chip. However, the F-35 helmet’s advanced technologies make visor cracks and improper fit a much bigger problem for the pilot that can affect their ability to complete their mission.

Lately, The modern battle room spoke to two members of the Collins Aerospace team to discuss the maintenance and repair challenges these advanced helmets pose. They also introduced us to new mobile head scanning and milling solutions developed by Collins Aerospace that make replacing helmet pads and visors an easier and more convenient process that can get pilots back in the fight in days instead of weeks.

Following these discussions, our team contacted Christopher Culley, Service Engineer at the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) Pilot Readiness Center (PRC) to delve deeper into the technology powering the future of the industry.

The Modern Battle Room (TMB): In our previous discussions of the F-35 helmet, we discussed Collins’ new head-scan technology with your collaborators Dustin Vagedes and Arthur De Ruiter. Chris, you did the initial fitting at Luke Air Force Base for many of the pilots flying around the world today after the initial fitting process. What were the benefits of this new technology with the ability to mill on site?

Chris Culey: A lot of technical know-how, thinking and innovation went into the development of this mobile scanner. Collins Aerospace really listened to end users and service technicians – like me – and used that knowledge to create this portable scanner and a process that overcomes the challenges.

The new head scanner has many advantages, one obvious one being mobility. The operator – Collins Aerospace – can take the scanner anywhere and scan pilots at any time. Other advantages include the better resolution of the scan, which makes it much easier to mark the pilots’ pupils, which is a very important step in this process.

“This is a fundamental goal of the RNLAF PRC – making sure the helmet fits properly and works for the pilot is the ultimate measure of success…” – Chris Culey

There are also benefits in calibration and efficiency. The old scanner required annual calibration, which could result in the pilot waiting for Collins to fly to depot to calibrate before use. This is no longer necessary as the mobile scanner has a calibration table and calibrates itself automatically before each scan.

Finally, the in-house grinder storage system is groundbreaking. The operator no longer needs to rely on an outside agency to create the mill file. This saves an enormous amount of time for the operator and the pilot as now in less than 48 hours they can manipulate the scan, put the pilot in the helmet, create the milling file and mill the pads for the pilot. Considering the old system could take weeks, this new system gets our pilots airborne in significantly less time.

At the end of the day, pilots just want to fly. Our job is to get them airborne faster and safer.

TMB: In these earlier discussions, Dustin and Arthur explained how some pilots would tolerate worn pads or cracked visors to avoid staying on the ground for too long. How does this new process change that? Do you see more pilots because the process is much faster?

Chris Culey: Pilots want to stay in the fight and not be grounded for the extended time it would take for a fitting and helmet swap to the US.

We’ve only been using this new process for a few months, but we expect to see an increase in pilots coming to us for pad and visor corrections. Being in the country and offering this service has put the pilot first – that’s something we strive for. Whether for training purposes or in action – the pilot is our priority.

“Being in the country and offering this service has put the pilot first – that’s something we aspire to. Whether for training purposes or in action – the pilot is our priority.” – Chris Culey

We hope that the Collins mobile head scanner and all of the newly developed RNLAF PRC technology will encourage pilots to repair helmet damage immediately – a proper fit is much safer for the pilot.

TMB: Do you expect that in the future many more pilots will fix problems with pads and visors immediately instead of learning to fly with problems like hotspots, fatigue, headaches etc.?

Chris Culey: Yes, I expect to see more pilots in the future.

I was able to travel to the RNLAF’s Leeuwarden Air Base and work with some pilots there to resolve their double vision problems. I also have a pilot coming to the RNLAF PRC next month to get a new set of pads which will fix the fit issues he was having.

The more pilots we support, the more people know that this technology is real and can help with problems like hotspots, fatigue, headaches, double vision and others. We hope to see more pilots and hear about the challenges they face. We are here to improve your flight experience.

TMB: As more pilots take advantage of this and use it immediately when there is a problem with their helmet liner or visor, it seems like the number of helmet repairs performed could increase. How many pilots can you scan and customize each week?

Chris Culey: So far we have scanned about 20 pilots from Leeuwarden, RNLAF. These scans are part of an effort to make pads available to these pilots when their existing pads become worn or broken. Essentially, this is preventative maintenance, allowing us to anticipate problems and ensure fitting the new helmet is as seamless as possible.

Ideally the pilot will not miss flight time as we would work with the flight equipment to make the change as soon as possible.

“This saves a tremendous amount of time for the operator and the pilot as they can now manipulate the scan, put the pilot in the helmet, create the milling file and mill the pads for the pilot in less than 48 hours.” – Chris Culey

In the long term, this number will increase as new pilot classes are planned and there are more pilots in the country who need support. Once we scan, the process for replacing pads or visors will be even faster in the future. With this new technology, I don’t expect any challenges to keep up with the demand.

TMB: What are your goals as a service technician at the RNLAF PRC?

Chris Culey: While I’m here I want to let the pilots and flight equipment crew know that I’m here to help them with any problems they may have. Pilots need to know that if they have problems, they don’t have to live with them. I’m here to help fix it.

I also want to get the needed feedback from pilots and flight equipment crews to help develop better products and processes to reduce and eliminate issues that pilots find after leaving the traditional fitting experience.

This is a fundamental goal of the RNLAF PRC – ensuring the helmet fits and functions properly for the pilot is the ultimate measure of success.

To learn more about how Collins Aerospace is working with the USAF to develop the next generation of pilot’s headgear, click here.

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