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Evaluation of Aircraft Ejection Seat Safety When Using Advanced Helmet Sensors DODIG-2015-090

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Objective

We are issuing this report in response to a request from Congress through the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2015. We determined whether DoD aircraft ejection seats meet aircrew survivability and equipment airworthiness requirements for pilots and aircrew wearing helmet-mounted displays (HMDs), night vision goggles (NVGs), or both during flight operations.

Findings

A. DoD ejection seat equipped aircraft with aircrew wearing HMDs and/or NVGs meet airworthiness criteria in accordance with DoD Military Handbook 516B,“Airworthiness Certification Criteria,” (MIL-HDBK-516B) and have been certified safe-to-fly by the appropriate Navy and Air Force acceptance authorities. However, both Services noted that there is an increased risk of neck injury during high-speed ejections with HMDs and/or NVGs above 450 KnotsEquivalent Air Speed (KEAS), and an increased potential of neck injuries for low-weight pilots. To mitigate these risks, both Services placed warnings, notes, cautions, and restrictions in the flight manuals.

B. In addition, the Joint Service Specification Guide (JSSG), “Crew Systems, Emergency Egress March 9, 2015 Handbook,” October 1998, has not been revised or updated as required by DoD Manual 4120.24, “Defense Standardization Program (DSP), Policies and Procedures.” Furthermore, our evaluation concluded that the overall risk of ejection is remote. Also, the addition of HMDs and/or NVGs does not significantly increase the risk of major injury during ejection if the aircrew is following proper ejection procedures described in the Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures (NATOPS) or the Air Force flight manuals.  Regardless of the helmet system being worn, if aircrew do not properly wear helmets at all times and follow proper ejection procedures, they are susceptible to an increased risk of head and neck injuries in the event of an ejection.

Recommendations

Although the ejection systems with NVGs/HMDs have been deemed airworthy by their respective Services, we recommend that the Navy and Air Force:

A.1. Continue to evaluate technology that would improve the overall safety of the pilot during ejections.

A.2. Ensure consistent documentation of aircraft ejection data to increase the data available for ejections with HMD and/or NVGs thus improving the safety risk analysis.

A.3. Ensure increased emphasis during training, annual checkrides, and continually stressed awareness that aircrew are following proper ejection procedures as identified in the NATOPS and the Air Force flight manuals.

B. We recommend that the Navy and Air Force review and update the JSSG to reflect changes in policy and technology that have occurred in the last 16 years.

Management Comments and Our Response

The Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Air Programs, agreed with three recommendations and partially agreed with one recommendation. The Deputy’s comments did not address how the recommendations would be implemented. We request that the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Air Programs, provide additional comments in response to this report by March 25, 2015.

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center agreed with all the recommendations, and its implementation plan is acceptable. We request a copy of the JSSG, “Crew Systems, and Emergency Egress Handbook,” once the update is complete.

This report is a result of Project No. D2014-DTOTAD-0002.000.