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Safety Experts: Some F-35 Ejections Pose ‘Serious’ Death Risk

Degree of risk is at issue in Pentagon

A pilot sits in the cockpit of an F-35 fighter jet preparing for a March training mission at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah. Safety officials disagree about the risk if pilots use the plane’s ejection seats. (George Frey/Getty Images File Photo)
A pilot sits in the cockpit of an F-35 fighter jet preparing for a March training mission at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah. Safety officials disagree about the risk if pilots use the plane’s ejection seats. (George Frey/Getty Images File Photo)

The F-35 fighter jets’ flawed ejection seats, which Air Force officials said in May had been fixed, still pose a “serious” risk that will probably injure or kill nearly two dozen pilots, according to an internal Air Force safety report that service officials withheld from the press.

The F-35 Joint Program Office — which runs the $406.5 billion initiative, the most expensive weapons program in history — has declined to try to save those lives by conducting less than a year’s worth of additional testing that would cost a relatively paltry few million dollars, the report shows.

Mannequin tests in 2015 had demonstrated that some F-35 pilots were at risk of fatal neck injuries if they had to eject in the original seats under some emergency conditions. Air Force officials said in a news conference in May that changes made to the seat since then, including a new head support, had essentially solved the problem.

“I’m confident our pilots are no longer concerned with the F-35 ejection system,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, a top official overseeing the program, told reporters.

But two weeks before the press conference, the internal Air Force report from the service’s top aviation safety experts, the Technical Airworthiness Authority, had told a different story.

Twenty-two pilots will be injured or killed in the coming decades, unless the upgraded ejection seats undergo additional testing to show they work in “off-nominal” cases — in other words, when the plane is out of control, not just in optimal flight conditions, said the May 1 report on “F-35-A Residual Risk Acceptance,” obtained by CQ Roll Call.

Such cases would be rare — perhaps 2 percent of ejections, by one estimate. But the results could be “catastrophic” for the pilots, the report said.

For “no less than $1 million” worth of tests taking “nine to 12 months,” the result could be “no additional losses” of pilots, the report said. But the program office “non-concurs” with the recommended testing, the report said.

Air Force public affairs officials at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where the safety report was produced, declined to provide a copy of the report and said a Freedom of Information Act request would have to be filed to obtain it.

Shattering canopy

The Pentagon’s directorate of operational testing agrees with the Technical Airworthiness Authority’s safety assessment.

The F-35 program “needs to conduct sufficient testing under off-nominal conditions to adequately characterize and assess the effect of off-nominal, (i.e., out-of-control) ejections,” said Army Lt. Col. Roger Cabiness, a spokesman for the operational testing office.

Another concern of Pentagon testing officials — one that has gotten less attention than the ejection seat — is the F-35’s polymer cockpit canopy, which lifts and shatters by design before the ejection seat is released. The worry is that the canopy’s “fragments may hit the pilot during the ejection sequence,” Cabiness said, especially if the plane is out of control.

The canopy system, too, has not been sufficiently tested to see how it will perform when the plane is out of control, the testing office has argued.

Public assurances, private alarms

The discrepancy between F-35 program officials’ public optimism and expressions of worry inside the Pentagon is not new to the program, whether the subject is the plane’s ejection system or other troubled aspects of its development.

For example, F-35 officials waited four years before testing the ejection seats after Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s then-testing director, first urged in 2011 that the tests be done.

Then, after the 2015 tests had found potentially deadly problems — especially but not exclusively for pilots weighing less than 165 pounds — Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the former program manager, repeatedly downplayed the risk, as in October 2015 testimony to a House panel and subsequent comments to reporters.

And in February 2016, after F-35 contractors conducted only limited tests of the seat’s modifications, Bogdan told reporters the fixes had “already worked”— an assertion that Gilmore said was unfounded shortly thereafter.

The Pentagon is buying more than 2,400 F-35s for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Major U.S. allies are also buying the planes, including some Asian militaries whose pilots generally weigh less than Americans.

The program has been plagued for years by technical snafus that have doubled the cost per plane and raised questions about its operational effectiveness.

A question of odds

Joe DellaVedova, a spokesman for the Joint Program Office, told CQ Roll Call the F-35’s ejection seats are no riskier than others and the potential dangers might occur in only rare instances. And he maintained that the more thorough tests called for by the Air Force safety experts are not cost-effective.

The danger discussed in the Air Force documents is “the risk associated with lack of validated analyses, not that the F-35A ejection seat is unsafe,” he said.

Likewise, Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman, said the service “has accepted risk of similar magnitude on previous ejection seats.”

The Navy and Marine Corps do not allow pilots less than 140 pounds to fly their jets, so they have not had the level of concern about the ejection seats as the Air Force. But the risks in out of control ejections could affect pilots up to 150 pounds, depending on what size helmet they are wearing, the Air Force’s internal document said.

The Air Force and Joint Program Office spokesmen also argued that ejecting from a fighter is inherently risky.

But, in reality, most Air Force pilots survive ejections that occur at 450 knots or less (ejections above those speeds are not recommended, though they sometimes must occur). And when the pilots die after ejections at or below 450 knots, they almost never die as a result of the ejection seat itself.

The Pentagon inspector general, after looking in 2015 at Air Force data over the previous two decades, found that of 189 ejections at 450 knots or less, just 24 resulted in major injury or death — and only once did “ejection shock” cause the death.

Officials who downplay the risks of the F-35’s ejection seat also point out that the odds of having to eject are low. However, the question that military safety experts are more interested in is not what the odds are that a pilot will have to eject but, rather, what the odds are that, upon ejection, the seat itself will hurt or kill the pilot.

‘Total death and disability’

The internal Air Force report states that the Technical Airworthiness Authority acknowledges but rejects the official service position that the risk to pilots during out of control ejections is “low.”

The authority “does not agree with this assessment,” it says.

Instead, the airworthiness office “assesses the risk for head and neck injury” as “serious” for pilots up to 150 pounds in some ejections.

The airworthiness experts do not recommend any pilots be restricted from flying F-35s, but they urge “further validation testing for off-nominal conditions.”

At issue are ejections when the plane is out of control — meaning when it is plummeting earthward, spinning, or moving sideways, conditions that occur in a minority of cases.

Of particular concern are ejections when the plane is close to the ground, when there is no time to deploy a smaller “drogue” parachute to cushion the violent effect of the rocket-propelled ejection and the deployment of a larger parachute.

The risks are considered serious, the report said, because only component testing and computer modeling has been done to assess if the fixes work when the planes are out of control.

Without new, more realistic tests of the reconfigured seats, the “predicted loss” is “22 pilots with minor/major/fatal injuries over the life of the fleet,” which is about 50 years — meaning an injury or death roughly every couple of years.

Because the experts had registered this risk assessment, the Air Force was forced to formally acknowledge, at least internally, both the danger and its acceptance of it — even though the service had not publicly conceded the unresolved problem.

“I have reviewed and accepted the Serious Level risk associated with the potential for head and neck injury … resulting in total death and disability,” wrote Lt. Gen. John Thompson, then-commander of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, in the May 1 document.

‘Probability of fatal injury’

The tests in 2015 showed that the ejection seats, as originally configured, would rock some pilots backward as they shot out of the jet in the seat, risking neck injury or death in ejections close to the ground.

The lightest pilots were most at risk, a fact the Air Force acknowledged at the time, as it barred pilots less than 136 pounds from flying F-35s. That restriction was lifted in May.

But pilots of all weights were in some degree of potential danger, according to officials and documents disclosed by CQ Roll Call in 2015. Air Force officials acknowledged that fact on condition of anonymity, but only Gilmore, the Pentagon’s testing director then, would say so on the record at the time.

Specifically, the 2015 tests indicated 98 percent “probability of fatal injury” for pilots weighing less than 135 pounds when ejecting from the original seat when the jet was too low to the ground to cushion the force of the ejection by the smaller parachute, according to the internal documents.

For pilots weighing up to 165 pounds, there was a nearly one in four chance of fatal injury, the documents showed. In Air Force press releases, that was described merely as “elevated” risk.

Even pilots weighing up to 200 pounds were considered at risk because testing had only been done at that point on mannequins weighing less than 136 pounds, Gilmore said in early 2016. Senior Air Force officials said the same — just not on the record.

Despite this evidence, Bogdan, the former F-35 program manager, testified in October 2015 that “the only area where we have a problem today is with the lightweight pilots weighing less than 136 pounds.”

Since 2015, larger mannequins have been used in testing. And since then, the F-35 program has modified its seat with not only the new neck harness but also a switch that lightweight pilots can use to slightly delay the ejection release, as well as a lighter helmet that affects the physics of ejection.

New F-35s will have the somewhat improved seats, but all but four of the 235 jets that pilots are flying today have yet to be modified, according to program office figures.

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