A host of problems plague the military's newest jet fighter, the F-35, but one of the simplest yet most troublesome is identified in a new government audit as unreadable "symbology."
The problem exists inside a small item at the heart of what makes the F-35 the world's most sophisticated aircraft -- if only it could be made to work. Namely, the pilot's helmet visor. On the world's most advanced, fifth-generation military aircraft, the visor is meant to be much more than a sun shield. It is supposed to do wondrous things.
Acting like a small, see-through movie screen, it is designed to display data showing how the plane is performing, where enemy targets are, and which weapons the pilot can use to handle them. As the pilot swivels his head, the display is meant to adapt, creating a direct link -- as in a science-fiction movie -- between the pilot and the aircraft's unprecedented computing power.
The visor is, according to the Government Accountability Office's latest annual report on the F-35's development, "integral to the mission systems architecture." In other words, the plane was more or less designed around the unique capabilities of that fancy helmet appendage.
Just one problem: It doesn't work. In flight tests, the visor's "symbology" has evidently been unreadable, because the plane itself has been bouncing up and down in the air more than expected. The effect is probably like trying to read an e-book while riding a bicycle along a boulder-strewn path.
"Display jitter," the GAO report says in a footnote, "is the undesired shaking of display, making symbology unreadable ... [due to] worse than expected vibrations, known as aircraft buffet."
Unfortunately for the plane's designers, jitter and buffeting are only part of the problems undermining the visor's use. The others are a persistent delay in displaying key sensor data -- making the visor symbols outdated as the aircraft streaks through the air at speeds up to 1,200 mph -- and an inability to show night vision readings properly.
So what's the big deal? It's just a visor. Well, the GAO report says "these shortfalls may lead to a helmet unable to fully meet warfighter requirements -- unsuitable for flight tasks and weapons delivery, as well as creating an unmanageable pilot workload, and may place limitations on the [F-35's] operational environment."
In short, if the visor doesn't work, the plane may not be able to do all the impressive things that the Pentagon is spending more than $1.5 trillion -- over the next 30 or so years -- to make it do. The GAO said this alarm was sounded by the program officials interviewed by its investigators.
A new visor is under development, at an estimated cost of just $80 million, so the Air Force may have a backup if the original visor's kinks cannot be worked out. But according to the GAO, the alternate visor won't be as capable. An Air Force spokesman did not respond to a request for comment, but DODBuzz.com quoted the F-35 program director in March as promising that the helmet troubles are "being addressed."
The director, Vice Adm. David Venlet, told a defense conference that the plane was just having "normal teething problems."
A few things went well for the F-35 program last year. A version being made for the Marines, capable of short takeoffs and landings, "performed better than expected" in flight tests. And the Air Force was able to double the number of test flights it performed the previous year. The volume of changes made to engineering drawings of the plane's components every month -- even while the plane is in early production -- has started to decline.