When it enters service, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter will lay claim to the title of the most advanced warplane in the world. Its pilots will have the most advanced helmets as well ... and there's more to it than protecting the pilot's head against knocks. The F-35's Gen II Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS) developed by Vision Systems International (VSI) may have the alarming appearance of a robot insect, but it will give F-35 pilots Superman-like vision. By gathering input from cameras scattered about the fighter plane, the HMDS effectively makes the aircraft invisible-at least, from the pilot's point of view. It even provides night vision, so the pilot doesn't have to wear cumbersome goggles. At least, that's the idea. Unfortunately, the gap between designing the helmet and building it has proven wider than originally thought and issues such as poor image quality are so severe that the F35's testing program faces serious delays, so F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin brought in BAE Systems to provide a substitute.

VSI's F35 Gen II Helmet Mounted Display System (Photo: VSI)

BAE Systems had developed a similar helmet for the Typhoon fighter. It, too, is state of the art and involves a massive forehead piece filled with computerized electronics that gives pilots a spherical view of the outside world as if the plane had vanished. The only fly in the ointment is that the Typhoon helmet isn't compatible with the F-35's systems, so all the electronics will be scooped out and a simpler solution found. The F-35 pilot will lose the giant fishbowl vision, but BAE systems plan to incorporate their Night Vision Goggle Helmet Mounted Display (NVG HMD) system, which incorporates the latest Q-SIGHT heads-up display of flight information and allows optical tracking of weapons. That's a bland way of saying that the missiles go where the pilot is looking. It also allows for night vision goggles to used without interfering with the displays or tracking function.

Of course, this substitute helmet is not intended as a replacement for the VSI version, but it does allow the testing program to go forward without being grounded by problems with what is essentially an information display system. However, if the BAE Systems substitute proves successful and the problems with the VSI helmet cannot be resolved, then it is possible that the imaging and other technologies of the VSI helmet will be incorporated into the BAE systems substitute.