Aviation

This technology can prevent a crash if an F-35 pilot passes out at the controls

When a guest takes a ride in a fighter plane and passes out because of the gravitational acceleration — or G force — it can make for some interesting online video.

But the same thing can happen to experienced pilots, which can lead to a deadly crash.

To that end, Lockheed Martin has for years been working on installing software on its fighter jets that would determine if a pilot has stopped responding and take action to avoid a crash. Many F-16s already have this capability.

That technology, known as automatic ground collision avoidance system, was originally developed for F-16s. And, now Fort Worth-based Lockheed Martin Aeronautics is installing the system on some F-35s.

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Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin

The system is now being placed on the F-35A version of the stealth fighter jet built for the U.S. Air Force, said Michael Friedman, F-35 program spokesman. The system will eventually be installed on all F-35s, he said.

The installation was originally scheduled to begin in 2026, but Lockheed Martin is ready seven years ahead of schedule, company officials said.

The technology is already credited with saving eight F-16 pilots’ lives since 2014, officials said.

“Expediting this life-saving technology into the F-35 across the global fleet will bring more warfighters home,” Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, F-35 program executive officer, wrote in an email.

He said the technology is expected to prevent more than 26 crashes over the life of the F-35 fleet.

The system was originally developed for the F-16 in partnership with NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

The system uses terrain mapping, digital geographical location and automation to detect and avoid potential ground collisions.

If it determines the aircraft is on a course of imminent impact with the ground, it will prompt the pilot to take action. If the pilot doesn’t respond, the system assumes temporary control of the aircraft and diverts it to a safe altitude and cruising pattern.

The software then hands the controls back to the pilot when he or she wakes up and re-orients to the surroundings.

To help Lockheed Martin speed up the rollout of the system, the 412th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base in California performed a rigorous flight testing program to evaluate how it works.

Gordon Dickson joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997. He is passionate about hard news reporting, and his beats include transportation, growth, urban planning, aviation, real estate, jobs, business trends. He is originally from El Paso, and loves food, soccer and long drives.
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