At a 2015 press briefing, Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark A. Welsh III was at a loss for words. “The helmet is much more than a helmet, the helmet is a workspace,” he said of the headgear invented for pilots of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. “It’s an interpretation of the battle space. It’s situational awareness. Calling this thing a helmet is really…we’ve got to come up with a new word.”
Wired magazine tried out “head unit.” The Economist: “Top Gun’s Topper.” Whatever it’s called, the thing is loaded. It combines a sensor suite, night-vision technology, an information-packed display system, line-of-sight tracking based on head movement, and targeting software—all designed to give pilots a god-like view: everything, everywhere, for the pilot to select to avoid sensory overload. Whereas fighter pilots once checked a head-up display on a fighter’s windscreen for information such as airspeed, heading, altitude, rate of climb, and information about other aircraft—friend and foe—in the same piece of sky, the F-35 pilot sees all this and more on the helmet visor. A pilot can either tap a touchscreen on the cockpit avionics panel or press a single button on the F-35 control stick to choose among three feeds: real-time video of what’s going on outside, thermal imagery, or night vision.
The helmet has the almost creepy capability of following the pilot’s gaze. As her head moves, so moves the data feed, presenting video from a suite of six cameras located on the F-35 airframe. The distributed aperture system—one camera is mounted ahead of the cockpit, another is aft, and the remaining four are below the airframe—gives the pilot the equivalent of X-ray vision: When she looks down, she can see straight through the floor of the airplane.