The most expensive weapon ever built, the F-35 will, over the course of its lifetime of service, cost US taxpayers well over $1.5 trillion. But even with the pricey development, the aircraft has seen many troubles. Most recently, the plane’s Martin-Baker ejector seat was found to be potentially deadly for pilots.
The Pentagon has conducted multiple tests to find the reason for the problem and to figure out how to fix it. After 20 evaluations and with one left to go, the Defense Department is nearly ready to announce its recommendations.
"We’re three to four weeks away from having all of the data done so that we can finalize the technical assessment, put that into a risk assessment, and then ultimately make a recommendation," Todd Mellon, joint program office (JPO) executive director, told Defense News.
"We expect all of that to come together towards middle or late October. All indications based on the data we’ve evaluated and the preliminary results through yesterday are favorable."
The ejector seat, coupled with the five-pound helmet, could potentially snap the neck of lightweight pilots when ejecting. To fix the error, the JPO is looking into three adjustments.
One is a switch installed into the seat that adjusts parachute loads to match individual pilots. Another is adding a head support panel to the seat, while the third option is to reduce the weight of the helmet from 5.1 pounds to 4.6 pounds.
If these modifications fail to produce the desired result, the Pentagon may scrap the Martin-Baker seat entirely. Going with a new contractor, however, would increase costs and delay delivery, and Andrew Martin, director of business development and marketing for Martin-Baker, thinks that unlikely, given the Pentagon’s rush to certify the aircraft.
"No one will high-five the world more than myself when the final test is complete, which I’m sure will be a success, and the world and the program can move on to focusing on other things," he told Defense News.
"But I really don’t take the scenario of the Air Force changing the escape system seriously at all. For that to happen, we would be talking about $50 million and a test program that would take three or four years, at best, for an alternative."
Upgrades to the Martin-Baker seat will take approximately two years to complete.
Having already invested uncounted billions in the production of the F-35, the US government has remained steadfastly in support of the aircraft, despite multiple hurdles. With variants designed for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, the Pentagon plans to purchase 1,763 of the fighters.