Warriors have been wearing helmets for thousands of years. They have protected them from hits and strikes, downfalls and other threats and those who could appreciate the importance of it, would decorate them with engravings, feathers and gemstones.
For modern day fighters, the helmet is an essential part of their equipment in combat fields. It may not be made of steel and the threats of swords have diverted to others, however it main goal remained: to protect the heads of combat soldiers from the enemy's weaponry.
Up until a few decades ago, every helmet held the same purpose for the air force crew, however, additional elements were recently added: control over systems, advanced data display and a feature that allows the pilot to aim the weapon using the helmet.
The Helmet Sees Far
Lieutenant Noa is a weapon systems operator in the "Hammers" squadron operating F-15I fighters. When she carries out her training sorties or operational flights, she wears the utility belt over her G-suit, which holds her survival equipment and puts on her DASH (Display and Sight Helmet). Throughout the flight, numbers appear in front of her eyes as points and lines that would be confusing and meaningless to someone who is unfamiliar with this information, however to her, the data is essential in order to conclude the mission. In the beginning of the 90's, the DASH helmets entered service in the IAF.
"The DASH constantly displays live statistics of the flight such as height, speed and direction on the eyepiece", explained Lieutenant Noa. "Together with the statistics, DASH is also capable of connecting to some of the missiles, allowing the pilot to aim and shoot a missile just by directing his gaze alone".
In order to understand the immenseness of this revolution, one must examine the days before the DASH was in use. Since the beginning of aviation, flight data was always visible on the dashboard in the cockpit and later the aircraft were equipped with HUD (Head Up Display) system, a display system that has abilities to focus on infinite distances that is located on the front of the cockpit and allows the pilot to view the display without moving his gaze towards the dashboard.
The weapon directing capability was in its infancy with the "Tfilin" system, a system which also belongs to "Elbit Systems"(Israeli manufacturer of DASH) and is capable of measuring the pilot's line of vision and displaying it through a collection of dots on the helmet in order to control the weapon.
"DASH gives optimal view", shares Yoran Shmueli, Head of Aerial Division of "Elbit Systems" who dealt with helmet developments.
DASH alters the reality with sensors such as GPS and video systems that allow optimal navigation. "Our sensors are our eyes", states Shmueli. "We added sensors to our eyes to allow us to see different wave lengths, interpret them and bring the reality to the eyes of the pilots".
This technology is named "Augmented Reality": technology that copies reality and adds virtual elements to it and merges it into real-time activity. "The most significant advantage of the augmented reality is the improvement in orientation", explains Major Avshalom Gil-Ad and Dorit Shayia from Human Factor and Agronomics Department in the IAF Headquarters. "The data direct you in to where you need to go".
However, although the importance of the display of data has advanced, there are still many pilots who may prefer to filter the amount of data and to use the ability to control the weapon.
"When pilots were asked about their preferences in the past, they admitted the best element of the helmet is the ability to control the weapon", shares Dorit. "They actually prefer to filter the amount of data given to them, to avoid losing focus".
Lieutenant Noa agrees: "The fact that we do not need to aim our entire aircraft at the target and we can simply move our head, without pulling the G-Force, is an ability that shortens the time and preserves aircraft potential".
Unique F-35 Helmet
IAF combat pilots have been using DASH for many years and throughout their training in Pilot School they learn to utilize it, but "Elbit" asked to take it one step further and installed new virtual HUD on the advanced F-35 JSF.
"The F-35 stealth jet is the first that does not have a HUD system. For a decade, there were many arguments regarding whether or not this was the right decision", Shmueli admits. "When we began flying trial flights it was clear that the idea of flying without the HUD won, because the pilot couldn't feel the difference".
The helmet contains a virtual HUD that is virtually presented, in the front of the cockpit through the helmets lenses. It looks and acts like a traditional HUD but is completely virtual.
"It was a huge challenge to develop this display and to ensure its steadiness and preciseness in the field even with the rapid fluctuations of a fighter jet. Eventually, we were able to remove an expensive and heavy element".
As such, "Elbit" claims that the F-35's futuristic helmet is the most advanced helmet to have been developed to this day. "In comparison to other operational helmets today, the Israeli F-35 helmet will have a double eyepiece and a wider 40 degree vision", tells Shmueli. "The helmet is connected to video cameras that surround the aircraft, which provides the pilot with a picture of the field outside the cockpit at 360 degrees".
The display of the F-35 helmet contains countless data and possibilities, such as integrations of the systems with weapons, communication with other jets in the formation and communication between cockpits, meaning between crew members. The members are responsible for choosing what data they would like to see in accordance to the situation they are facing. "The trick is to choose the right data at the right time", explains Shmueli.
"This is one of the issues discussed in the world of augmented reality", adds Major Avshalom. "What parameters are relevant to display? When do data become overwhelming? After all, it's a matter of balance and examination of essential components to sift unnecessary data to the best of one's ability".
It's All in Your Head
Not only do combat units get to unitize these advanced helmets. The world of helicopters has proven to have a similar need, but the main issue was not control over weaponry, rather night vision at a low height with harsh field conditions. As such, helicopters pilots benefited from helmets as advanced as the DASH, helmets that allow one to receive information in flight as well as night vision.
"Elbit" shares, that the world of heavy transportation has started using helmets. There is mostly a need for the tactical transportation and "Hercules" C-130 jets, in the American Air Force which has already integrated HUD from "Elbit".
The use of display helmets have already been assimilated in the Israeli Air Force. "As a young weapon systems operator, without the DASH, our abilities are effected", said Lieutenant Noa. "However, it has received bad feedback from the veteran pilots. They proclaim that once you start using the DASH, you can't fly without it. Therefore, the current approach is to teach pilots the basics, such as reading the HUD and after gaining more flight experience and only then, teach pilots to use the DASH".
Even with the more traditional HUD systems and the current outlook on how to teach new pilots, the world direction is clear. Cadets of IAF pilot school today will become F-35 pilots and the helmets will become a consistent part of their combat flights. The Pilot school is also anticipating the arrival of helmets that mirror the abilities of the DASH and F-35 jet helmets.
"In the F-35, there is no flight without a helmet, it's the foundation of the flight", said Yoram Shmueli. "We believe that in the future, everyone will have this kind of technology in their homes. The children of today will grow up with this kind of technology in their hands. The air force's last manned fighting jet will have a DASH system rather than HUD. In 20 more years, the young pilots won't know a different reality, but they will be able to comprehend the new reality even faster".