A week after the Air Force grounded lightweight pilots from flying the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the head of the U.S. military's most advance fighter jet program said officials are working on fixes to make it safe for them to get back in the cockpit.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, program executive officer of the F-35 Joint Program Office, in prepared testimony to lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Wednesday acknowledged that pilots weighing less than 136 pounds face an increased risk of neck injury when ejecting from the plane.
"The reason there is an increased risk only for lightweight pilots is because these pilots are assumed to have lower neck strength than heavier pilots and therefore are unable to sustain higher neck loads we are seeing during ejection," he told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
In a recent test, officials identified an unacceptable risk of neck injury during parachute deployment at low-speed conditions for lightweight pilots, the Air Force said in a press release last week. The requirement is for the seat to be certified for any pilot weighing between 103 and 245 pounds, it states. An unacceptable level of risk was discovered for pilots weighing less than 136 pounds, it states.
The Air Force restricted pilots who weigh less than 136 pounds from flying the F-35A Lighting II. As a result, one pilot -- reportedly a woman -- was prevented from operating the aircraft. Yet there's also elevated risk for pilots between 136 and 165 pounds. The number of F-35 pilots in this weight range wasn't specified.
Bogdan said the three planned improvements include developing a lighter helmet to reduce neck loads during the catapult and windblast phases of ejection; developing a "weight switch" on the ejection seat to delay the parachute's opening for lighter pilots and thus reduce the opening shock; and developing a head support sewn into the parachute risers to reduce the rearward head movement of the pilot when the main chute of the ejection seat opens.
"The combination of three improvements will provide the needed protection for lightweight pilots," he said.