A host of problems plague the military’s newest jet fighter, the F-35, but one of the simplest yet most troublesome is identified in a new government audit as unreadable “symbology.”
The problem exists inside a small item at the heart of what makes the F-35 the world’s most sophisticated aircraft — if only it could be made to work. Namely, the pilot’s helmet visor. On the world’s most advanced, fifth-generation military aircraft, the visor is meant to be much more than a sun shield. It is supposed to do wondrous things.
Acting like a small, see-through movie screen, it is designed to display data showing how the plane is performing, where enemy targets are, and which weapons the pilot can use to handle them. As the pilot swivels his head, the display is meant to adapt, creating a direct link — as in a science-fiction movie — between the pilot and the aircraft’s unprecedented computing power.
The visor is, according to the Government Accountability Office’s latest annual report on the F-35’s development, “integral to the mission systems architecture.” In other words, the plane was more or less designed around the unique capabilities of that fancy helmet appendage.
Just one problem: It doesn’t work. In flight tests, the visor’s “symbology” has evidently been unreadable, because the plane itself has been bouncing up and down in the air more than expected. The effect is probably like trying to read an e-book while riding a bicycle along a boulder-strewn path.
“Display jitter,” the GAO report says in a footnote, “is the undesired shaking of display, making symbology unreadable … [due to] worse than expected vibrations, known as aircraft buffet.”