Royal Air Force lacks suitable helmet for potential female F-35 pilots, Chief of Air Staff admits
The head of the Royal Air Force has revealed that the UK does not have a suitable helmet to allow women – and men who are not heavy enough – to fly the F-35 fighter aircraft.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston appeared before MPs on the Commons Defence to face questions about the state of the RAF and admitted there is a "woeful gender diversity" in aircrew and, particularly, fast jet aircrew.
Question marks were raised over why there are no women who have yet qualified to fly the F-35 and if this was due to the issue of helmet weight.
The Chief of the Air Staff admitted that a "lighter helmet, that would allow lighter aircrew, not just women, but lighter aircrew, to fly the F-35... would have challenges in clearing it in safety terms".
He added: "It does not give the pilot the protection that the other helmet has."
The RAF chief did, however, highlight that "on a case-by-case basis, if a woman or a light person came through the flying system and there was an operational benefit for that person to be flying Lightning, then we could make the risk case for flying with a different helmet.
"As it stands at the moment, there is sufficient safety grounds for us to say 'that's the minimum weight limit for Lightning and, whether you are a man or woman or anybody, that's what applies'."
The head of the Royal Air Force drew attention to a "far more fundamental problem, which is the lack of women coming through flying training" to which Labour MP Kevan Jones challenged.
Mr Jones said: "The problem there is you're reducing your pool down straight away, aren't you?
"If women are lighter, which they generally are, they are not going to be ever fly F-35s, the only alternative is you stop them flying or you ask them to go put some weight on."
In response, Air Chief Marshal Wigston said: "If we were in that fortunate position where I had women who were in the position to be flying F-35, we would absolutely do a bespoke risk case analysis for that person flying with a different helmet."
Mr Jones did question the probability of these circumstances actually coming into motion, to which Air Chief Wigston replied, "if that person's skill set strongly pointed towards F-35 Lightning then as I say we would look at the options of using a less safe helmet."
US helmet the answer?
Chair Tobias Ellwood brought to the attention of the Defence Select Committee that there was an American helmet that would fit the required criteria to allow lighter aircrew.
Mr Ellwood said: "There is an American helmet designed for females, which is lighter, but they cost a quarter of a million pounds each and we haven't purchased any because I think there are some health and safety regulations, or UK regs, which prohibit us from doing that.
He then put to the RAF chief that "maybe you could take that away because if you solve that particular issue, we wouldn't be debating" whether a female's weight "was the determinating factor as to whether they can fly the F-35".
ACM Wigston responded by reaffirming to the committee that "no woman has been turned away from Lightning because of a weight limit".