Air Force to review potential fixed wing helmet replacements at AFWERX event

An Airman and an attendee of the AFWERX Helmet Challenge discuss new helmets at the Enclave Las Vegas, Nev., Nov. 14, 2018. The final goal of the challenge is to enhance aircrew performance, aircrew safety and aircrew satisfaction. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Bryan T. Guthrie)

A team of experts from the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Human Systems Division and the Advanced Tactical Acquisition Corps, will travel to Las Vegas, Nev., for a May 22 event showcasing helmets that could replace the legacy helmets currently worn by aircrew in most fixed-wing aircraft.

Hosted by AFWERX Vegas – an Air Force innovation hub specializing in engaging entrepreneurs and private sector vendors – the event is open to the public and will feature Lift Aviation, Aviation Specialties Unlimited and GENTEX, which are all companies vying to be selected to produce the next generation helmet for use in all fixed-wing aircraft other than the F-35.

Each company will present four proof-of-concept helmets which will be evaluated by the AFLCMC team to determine their potential to meet Air Force needs.

Challenged to show their best effort at the event, the three companies have been told the Air Force is looking for the realm of the possible, said Sonja Crowder, a member of ATAC and test engineer. She added that after the event AFLCMC would take the 12 helmets and coordinate testing on them to see how they stack up against requirements and the current legacy helmets.

Initial testing is expected to be completed in August and from there, the most viable helmets will move to the prototype phase which will include additional tests and evaluation to look at strengths and weaknesses and determine if they can meet key requirements.

Replacing legacy helmets on fixed-wing aircraft other than the F-35 has become a priority in part because over time new requirements have added sub-systems, and devices that the helmets were not originally designed for.

“The current helmets worn by aircrews in most fixed-wing aircraft were designed in the 1980’s and not made to withstand and balance everything – technology – that we are putting on them,” said 1st Lt. Naomi Harper, a program manager with the Human Systems Division. “If the weight on the helmets is off, the center of gravity is completely off, which can cause neck issues and pain for our aircrews. Our goal is to find a helmet that is lighter, has more stability and is compatible with fixed-wing aircraft and equipment.”

The ATAC team comprised of a group of competitively selected mid-level military and civilian acquisition professionals from across AFLCMC, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Space and Missile Systems Center and the Air Force Test Center, are focused not only on supporting the Human Systems Division during this process, but capturing lessons learned and figuring out the best way to quickly transition technology to the Air Force through platforms like AFWERX.

“For years, the Air Force only had one vendor [for the helmet],” said Natasha Tolentino, program manager and member of ATAC. “AFWERX was able to bring in multiple non-traditional companies to compete to replace the helmets. They [AFWERX] are creating relationships that weren’t originally there, in order to help the warfighter and it is unprecedented to see how quickly this process (to replace legacy helmets) is going.”

A production contract will be awarded in fiscal year 2021 for the prototype selected to be the next generation fixed wing helmet. Up to $20 million in production follow-on contracts is expected over the life of the program.