Outfitting F-35 pilots requires perfection

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Anyone who has been fitted for a suit, a tux or even a set of golf clubs knows the difference a fitting can make.

It's no different for warfighters. As technology gets more sophisticated it's essential that F-35 Lightning ll pilots be properly fitted for their gear.

The pilot-fit facility opened on Luke Air Force Base June 10 and has since outfitted 20 pilots with advanced perfectly fitting gear. The PFF is run by Lockhead Martin and houses two highly technical engineering companies.

"On one side, we have Survitec Group, and they do everything below the neck," said Joe Garcia, Lockhead Martin PFF lead. "On the other side of the building there's Rockwell Collins who assembles and custom fits the F-35 helmets."

Fitting and issuing the gear is a two-day process that includes testing the gear in a cockpit to ensure pilots can function safely and comfortably.

"The pilot comes in on day one, and we do a series of 13 measurements," said Keith Geltz, Survitec Group senior field engineer. "We take those sizes and determine a predicted fit."

Survitec Group has a room full of various-sized garments. Once a pilot is given a predicted fit, he or she tries on the item to make sure it's an actual fit.

"The first thing they will put on is a cooling garment which works like antifreeze to keep the pilot cool," Geltz said. "If they're going to fly over water then they also need to wear a thermal protection layer."

Every time they add a piece of gear the pilots are put through a series of movements to ensure they can maneuver.

"The first one is a 26-inch step to simulate getting into an F-35," Geltz said. Then they have to reach for the risers. After that, they sit down and check six, both right and left and then they attempt to put something in the g-suit pocket. They're all basic movements they would do in the cockpit, and we need to make sure they can do it."
On the other side of the house, Rockwell Collins is crafting F-35 Generation ll and lll helmet-mounted display systems.

This part of the process takes about four hours per helmet and involves spending two days with each pilot. On the first day, measurements are taken of the pilot's head, including a 3-D head scan and the use of a pupilometer to measure the distance between the pupils.

Once the measurements are made they begin assembling the helmet. This process includes custom-milling each helmet liner so the helmet sits comfortably on the pilot's head while maintaining stability under high-gravity maneuvers so the optics continue to match up to the individual's field of view.

"They custom fit the pads in the helmet based on head size," said Donald Guess, Rockwell Collins customer support specialist.

Once the helmet is assembled, the pilot comes in for a final fitting on the second day. During this time the optics are aligned to the pilot's pupils and the display visor is custom contoured. This process must be done precisely so the pilot has a single focused image at infinity.

"We take the pilot outside and have him focus on a point in the distance," Guess said. "This allows us to check everything and make sure the optics are aligned correctly."
Once the pilot receives all his perfectly fitting gear from the PFF, it's his forever regardless of service or nationality.

"As long as they're flying an F-35, this equipment belongs to them," Geltz said. "Every service and every country wears the same exact gear. If a pilot flies an F-35, he has this equipment."

The gear the pilot receives isn't just a perfect fit for him or her; it's a perfect fit for the F-35.

"This is the first time in history equipment like this has been designed for a particular aircraft," Geltz said. "Every aircraft we have now started with the aircraft being developed and then existing flight equipment is modified to make it work. This equipment is perfect for the F-35."