San Jose company lands $60M military contract

Vision Systems Int’l inks Defense Department deal to supply high-tech helmets

BY DAVID SPEAKMAN

Vision Systems International LLC (VSI) of San Jose recently won a $60.1 million contract to deliver 300 helmets for pilots of the military’s fleet of fixed-wing jet fighters. The Department of Defense believes the technology could mean the difference between a fighter pilot’s life and death in a battle situation.

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War more than a decade ago, the U.S. military got a chilling wake-up call. In practice maneuvers with a newly unified Germany, U.S. fighter pilots were consistently beaten by German-operated Russian MiGs.

It turned out the Achilles heel wasn’t the pilots’ skill or the aircraft itself — it was the helmet.

The Russians and their allies had developed technology to beam flight information and targeting data directly to the pilot’s helmet visor, keeping him updated with flight data no matter where he looked.

Although American fighter pilots had superior sensor equipment in their aircraft, the gauges were scattered throughout the cockpit.

“The drawback to that is when a pilot looks down or around in the cockpit for information, he or she is taking eyes away from where he or she is flying,” says Kenneth Stansell, president of VSI, which is contracted to solve that problem.

Originally, the U.S. military tried to solve the problem by mounting a display in the cockpit that transmits sensor data into the field of view of a pilot when he or she is looking over the nose of the aircraft.

But Stansell says that system doesn’t allow a pilot to look to the side or back to the rear without losing sight of the instrumentation data or the aircraft’s targeting capability.

“If the pilot wanted to use that capability, they had to point the nose of the aircraft to what they wanted to look at,” says Stansell.

But the days of military fighter pilots being forced to adapt to their aircraft are numbered, says Stansell.

VSI, a joint venture of Israel’s Elbit Systems Ltd. and Rockwell Collins Inc.’s San Jose-based Kaiser Aerospace and Electronics, has re-designed current U.S. fighter pilot helmets for Navy Super Hornet fighters and Air Force F-15s and F-16s.

Steve Binder, a New York-based aerospace and defense sector analyst with Bear Stearns & Co., says programs like this are essential for aircraft contractors, such as Rockwell Collins, whose commercial aircraft operations have been hurt by a general decline in the airline market since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

In a recent research report, Binder says the new generation of government programs helps offset Rockwell Collins’ commercial business losses.

Part of those new government programs is VSI’s new fighter helmet.

Called the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System, VSI is taking fighter-pilot helmets and visors beyond their original purpose — protecting the pilot’s head and eyes from banging around in the cockpit and the glare of the sun.

To remake the helmets, VSI had to cram in such miniature electronics as a video camera, TV tube, power supply and the computing power of a desktop computer into an area on the helmet the size of a large ashtray while keeping the helmet’s weight at less than five pounds.

“In essence, the [new] helmet is the next evolutionary step in cockpit displays,” says VSI’s Stansell. “No matter where you are looking, the flight data and targeting is all there in front of you.”