Air Force: F-35 Helmet is a 'Workspace,' Not a Helmet

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The U.S. Air Force wants to use another word to describe the expensive, high-tech helmet that can "see through" windowless parts of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

When asked about the price tag for the pilot gear -- which has ranged from $400,000 to $800,000 apiece -- Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said he didn't know its unit cost and that it won't be finalized until the hardware enters production.

But he did have this to say about the technology:

"The helmet is much more than a helmet, the helmet is a work space," he said. "It's an interpretation of the battle space, it's situational awareness.  This is a -- calling this thing a helmet is really -- we've got to come up with a new word."

Cue chuckles in the Pentagon briefing room.

The Helmet Mounted Display System made by Rockwell Collins Inc. was previously estimated to cost about $500,000 apiece. It's designed to provide pilots with 360-degree situational awareness in any kind of weather, day or night.

The jet's distributed aperture system streams real-time imagery from cameras and sensors mounted around the aircraft to the helmet, allowing pilot's to "see through" windowless parts of the cockpit.

While development of the technology has posed significant challenges, the Pentagon has worked with the aircraft's main contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp., in recent years to identify fixes. It apparently felt good enough about the improvements that it canceled development of an alternative product made by BAE Systems Plc.

But the helmet has still had bugs. When a news team from the CBS News program, "60 Minutes," visited the Marine Corps station last year in Yuma, Arizona, a helmet malfunction caused a scheduled flight to be scrubbed.

Welsh said he hasn't heard concerns from pilots that the helmet is distracting or too complicated.

"All the people flying the airplane, from the time I came into this job three years ago and started asking about the problems I kept hearing about with the helmet, not a single one of them has said yeah, I don't want to use it," he said. "It's pretty -- it's a pretty incredibly capability, and they adapt very quickly to it."

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