Martin-Baker, JPO Push Back at F-35 Ejection Seat Concerns

Aaron Mehta, Defense News

WASHINGTON — As the US Air Force considers an alternative supplier for its F-35 joint strike fighter (JSF) ejection seats, incumbent developer Martin-Baker is pushing back at the idea their design will not be sufficient to ensure pilot safety.

In a statement released Monday to Defense News, James Martin, Martin-Baker’s co-chief executive, defended the company’s US-16E model and said testing of new safety elements is on track to be fully qualified by the end of year, with the end of flight restrictions on lightweight pilots to follow shortly thereafter.

“There should be no question; we are totally committed to the success of all those who use Martin-Baker safety equipment,” Martin said in the statement. “We share our customer’s commitment to ensuring the F-35 ejection seat meets the government’s performance standards across the entire spectrum of requirements to protect the men and women who fly the Lightning II.”

Defense News first broke the news June 24 that the US Air Force is looking into certifying a competitor seat, the United Technologies ACES 5 design, as an alternative for its fleet of F-35A fighters.

Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the service’s top uniformed acquisition official, said the service has asked the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) to look into the logistics and costs for certifying ACES 5 as a “potential risk mitigation step if additional things happen as we go through the testing of the Martin-Baker seat.”

The core of the issue is a discovery last year that pilots under 136 pounds were at risk of severe neck injury upon ejection. To mitigate the issue, Martin-Baker launched a three-fold plan, which began with reducing the weight in the futuristic helmet work by JSF pilots. The company also worked in software fixes in the seat, altering the impact from the parachute deploying, and then added a head support panel to prevent the pilot’s neck from whipping backward when the parachute deploys.

According to the release, Martin-Baker has carried out 14 ejection tests of the new design, with eight tests remaining before the end of the year.

Notably, the statement from Martin-Baker includes a comment from Gen. Chris Bogdan, the F-35 program executive officer supporting the Martin-Baker design.

Sources have told Defense News that the JPO is cool to the idea of replacing the F-35 seat, in part because of the potential cost overruns it could cause on the already famously expensive program. Such a move would also have major impacts on the industrial base strategy that is the backbone of the F-35 program.

However, all involved agree that pilot safety is the priority with this issue, and Bogdan’s statement clearly indicates the JPO expects the redesign will do its job.

“We believe the current Martin-Baker US-16E ejection seat with proposed fixes will meet all F-35 requirements,” Bogdan was quoted as saying. “The seat will provide a safe escape envelope for pilots in excess of legacy aircraft.”

Also chiming in with support as part of the statement was Jeff Babione, Lockheed Martin’s program head for the F-35 program. Lockheed is the prime contractor for the fifth-generation fighter. As with the JPO, sources had indicated Lockheed is not enthused at the prospect of a new seat being introduced to the program.

“We are confident that this ejection seat meets and exceeds the requirements as outlined by the U.S. military and the F-35 partner nations,” Babione said in the statement.

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