Four years before Pentagon officials discovered potentially life-threatening problems with the F-35 joint strike fighter’s ejection seat, a top official warned in an urgent memo that the escape system should be more thoroughly vetted before pilots were trained on the plane.
In an unsolicited dispatch to the top defense officials overseeing the $400 billion F-35 program, J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, said he was concerned that training flights would proceed even though the ejection seat system had not been fully tested.
His warnings were rejected by Pentagon brass, who pressed on with the controversial program, according to internal documents obtained by The Washington Post. But a series of recent tests revealed serious problems with the jet fighter’s escape system, the Pentagon acknowledged this month, creating potentially hazardous circumstances, especially for lighter-weight pilots.
Those light-weight pilots face a “high” risk of danger, and the risk is deemed “serious” for mid-weight pilots, according to an internal risk assessment of the problem, which was obtained by The Post.
Lighter-weight pilots, those weighing less than 136 pounds, are now prohibited from flying the aircraft, officials said, until the problem is fixed.
The latest setback for the most expensive weapons program in Pentagon history has concerned some members of Congress who wondered why testers are still finding significant flaws in a fighter jet that has been in development for about 14 years. The F-35 is being built by Lockheed Martin in west Fort Worth.
“They pushed this system through recklessly and now we’re seeing the costs,” said Jackie Speier, D-Calif. “We are just lucky that the testing was done with dummies and not real Air Force pilots.”
Appearing before a congressional panel this week, Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the program’s executive officer, said that, “we take this deficiency with the ejection seat and the safe escape very, very seriously.”
The problem occurs because the force of ejection can be so great that pilots’ heads suddenly snap forward or back, causing injury. But Bogdan said officials have identified solutions —reducing the helmet weight, creating a switch on the ejection seat for lower-weight pilots and a head support panel in the parachute. Some of those fixes have been in the works for six months, but it could be another year until they are resolved, Bogdan said.
“I’m confident the current risks will be resolved and we will be able to overcome the current and future problems,” he said.
In his testimony, Bogdan said that testing of the ejection seat has been going on “for many, many years,” and has been methodical.
In August, when officials realized that pilots who weighed less than 136 pounds could face “potentially fatal whiplash,” the program restricted those pilots from flying. Problems with the ejection seat were previously reported by Congressional Quarterly and Defense News.