Latest trouble with F-35 bars light pilots from cockpit

An F-35 flies over Florida (U.S. Air Force photo)
An F-35 flies over Florida (U.S. Air Force photo)

While an environmental review is underway to determine whether Eielson Air Force Base will be the future home of two squadrons of F-35s, the Air Force is already flying the fighters in the Lower 48. But after massive cost overruns and a 2014 engine fire, the aircraft remains controversial in Congress. The latest problems are with the ejection seat.

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At a U.S. House hearing today, Congressman Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican, says recent tests show the seat is dangerous for lighter-weight pilots.

“The specification for the ejection seat is that it needs to be able to accommodate a safe escape at pilot weights of 103 to 245 pounds,” said Turner. “We understand that until this deficiency is corrected pilots weighing less than 136 pounds will not fly the F-35 due to a high risk of serious injury that could result from having to eject.”

Gen. Christopher Bogdan says that with the F-35 helmet on, the forces on the neck of a lighter pilot are too high, so they’re trying to take some weight out of the tech-rich helmet. But it’s not a simple fix.

“We have been ongoing with the development of the new helmet and the new weight for about six months,” the general testified. “It will take about another year for us to finish that, to ensure that every helmet is less than 4.8 pounds.”

The Air Force is also adding a switch to the seat of the F-35 that will delay the parachute launch for lighter pilots by a fraction of a second, to make for less of a jolt. Bogdan says lighter pilots will be catapulted higher into the air, so the slight delay won’t make the parachute less effective. Once the seat is up to specifications, the Air Force intends to allow pilots lighter than 136 pounds back in the cockpit.

The Air Force already has 79 of the F-35s. Another general at the hearing said one male pilot was transferred because he didn’t weigh enough to fly the F-35. The sole female F-35 pilot is still flying, apparently because she meets the temporary weight limit.

The target date for the aircraft’s arrival in Eielson is 2019.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at

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