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HERZLIYA, Israel (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) said on Tuesday that it was making progress on resolving technical issues facing the cutting-edge helmet being developed for use by F-35 fighter pilots, and it cited positive initial reports from night flight tests of the system.
Lockheed Martin Executive Vice President Tom Burbage said that night vision performance was the "only real question" left on the helmet, which was designed by a joint venture of Rockwell Collins Inc (COL.N) and Israel's Elbit Systems (ESLT.TA) to display all the information F-35 pilots need to fly the plane.
The question was whether the helmet system would allow pilots to see well enough at night to carry out precision tasks such as refueling or landing on a ship, Burbage told Reuters before an event at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies in Herzliya.
The helmet is an ambitious effort since it will integrate data from all of the F-35's sensors and cameras, allowing pilots to essentially see through the plane's floor and all around it. It must update the data constantly even when the plane travels at supersonic speeds and carries out complex maneuvers.
"We're making great progress on the helmet," Burbage told Reuters, noting that it was in use by F-35 test pilots and those being trained by the U.S. military.
He said two tests dedicated to studying the helmet's performance at night were taking place at Naval Air Station Patuxent River and initial reports were "quite good."
The Pentagon's incoming F-35 program director, Major General Christopher Bogdan, last month cited continuing issues with the helmet, overall software development for the plane, and an automated logistics and spare parts system, but he said tension between the company and the U.S. government posed a greater threat to the program.
Lockheed is developing three variants of the single-seat, single-engine F-35 fighter for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Eight international partners are helping to pay for its development including Britain, Canada, Australia, Norway, Turkey, Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands.
Israel and Japan have also placed orders for the plane.
Yossi Ackerman, president and chief executive of Elbit, declined to comment except to cite what he called "dramatic progress" on the helmet.
No comment was immediately available from the Pentagon's F-35 program office.
Burbage said the company had logged almost 5,000 flights using the primary helmet, and it would be used by the U.S. Marine Corps when they start flying the new fighter in 2015, a deadline Bogdan had called into question last month.
He said until it received full approval from the Pentagon for the primary helmet, the company was continuing to fund work on a less ambitious, alternate helmet being developed by BAE Systems (BAES.L), which uses goggles.
"No one really wants to use goggles in a fifth-generation airplane. It affects your ejection envelopes and everything else. We are trying to get away from the goggles," he said.
He said the primary issue now facing the Rockwell-Elbit helmet was whether pilots could see well enough to refuel the plane from a dark refueling aircraft and land the F-35B variant, which lands like a helicopter, on a dark ship at night.
Burbage said the night flights under way now would help answer that question. He said there had also been concerns about a lag in getting sensor data to the helmet, but that was not an issue anymore.
Reporting By Dan Williams; additional reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa in Washington