Pilot fit facility outfits 1,000th F-35 pilot with helmet, survival gear

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Jymil Licorish
  • 33rd Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Amidst the hum of sewing machinery and the buzz of scanners, the pilot fit facility became the focal point of celebration as a Japanese Air Self-Defense Force pilot stepped forward to be outfitted for his essential gear. Captain Ryosuke Sugimoto, representing not only his nation but also the collaborative effort of the F-35 program, donned his newly tailored helmet.

Leadership from the 33rd Fighter Wing, Joint Program Office, and Lockheed Martin Corporation gathered here to celebrate the facility’s significant milestone as the 1,000th F-35 pilot received his flight helmet and survival gear May 22.

“We fit pilots nearly every day, and I've been in this seat for over 10 years, so this milestone has been eagerly awaited,” said Malcolm Kennedy, Lockheed Martin PFF lead. “For the entire team, it's a major milestone. For the wing and the foreign military sales customer, it shows the teamwork - we've all grouped together and made it happen.”

Just like every tailored article of clothing, there are meticulous steps involved in ensuring each pilot is perfectly geared up. The PFF Collins Aerospace fitters conduct face measurements for the mask and head measurements for the helmet, known as the ‘above-the-neck’ fitting. Next, they scan the pilot's head before inputting those measurements into their database to request the necessary sizes. Finally, the gear is prepared for day two of the fitting, where the pilot is also equipped with optical alignment, to ensure the helmet’s HMDS is correctly set up.

“For below-the-neck pilot flight equipment, Survitec takes 15 measurements,” said Thomas Swaim, LMCO senior field engineer. “With those measurements, we predict the size and then have the pilot try on the gear. We check them sitting down with their G-suit to make sure it fits correctly. The jacket’s sleeves must be the correct length and it must be comfortable. Once validated, we order the gear through the Survitec system, Agile, which is sent to a center in Ohio to be fulfilled, taking about ten days for completion.”

The PFF opened in 2010 as the first facility to outfit F-35 pilots who train at Eglin among four others of its kind in the country. Pioneering these operations, the program faced some challenges during their journey toward this milestone.

“We need to get the pilots in and out, but we also don’t want to rush the process,” said Kennedy. “Sometimes, we have gone overtime for the fitting sessions due to language barriers with other nations or the optical alignment, which can be taxing on the pilot’s eyes during the above-the-neck measurements.”

Despite these challenges, the unique personalized approach to fitting each pilot remains a cornerstone of the team’s process.

“Numerous pilots have said they’ve never experienced the one-on-one treatment,” said Kennedy. “These fitters focus on one pilot at a time, dedicating two hours on the first day and four hours on the second to ensure everything below-the-neck is fitted correctly and comfortably, and the helmet is aligned properly.”

After his own personalized fitting, Sugimoto reflected on the significance of being selected for this milestone.

"First, I would like to congratulate the team on this accomplishment,” said Sugimoto. “I am lucky to be the 1,000th person and experience being fitted for the pilot flight equipment on a conventional aircraft. I can't wait for the completion of my first flight.”

As a token of recognition for his pivotal role in the PFF’s achievement, Sugimoto was presented with a JPO coin, commemorating both the individual's achievement and the collective efforts of the international partnership driving the F-35 program forward.

The program has reached some significant firsts and achievements over the years, having fitted the first female F-35 pilot, Lt. Col. Christine Mau, the first U.S. Navy female F-35 pilot and Top Gun instructor, Lt. Cmdr. Mary Ruttum, and the first U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps squadrons, proving to have a legacy of excellence.

“Reaching 1,000 fittings here highlights both the continued growth of the F-35 program around the world, and the central role that Eglin AFB and the 33rd FW have played in that growth,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Jordan Grant, 33rd Fighter Wing deputy commander. “Pilots from around the world travel here to Northwest Florida to be fitted for their training and operations in the F-35. Each time we fit out a F-35 pilot, we are adding to the strength and security of the United States and our long list of partners and allies. Team Eglin and the surrounding community should be very proud of that!”

This milestone promises to be the first of many more as the facility plays a major role in the future of military aviation through innovation.

“At one point, the helmet was just a platform for oxygen and communication, then we added night vision goggles,” said Swaim. “With this helmet system, it is now an aircraft system. Our job is to integrate the human into that system. The F-35 is upgradable, so for any systems they put on the F-35, we’ll be upgrading our helmet too – whether it be software, hardware, etc.”

Sugimoto sported his custom flight gear, marking the triumph of the program’s success and symbolizing the PFF’s drive toward pushing the boundaries of technological innovation with pinpoint execution for the 1,000th time.