When Yaron Krantz retired from regular services as an IAF fighter pilot in 1990, he never thought he will play a part in a revolution, in the context of which most of the world's fighter pilots would convert to flying with their flight data displayed on a visor that constitutes an integral part of their helmet.
The tremendous success of the flight helmet transformed Elbit Systems and not just the world of flight. It turned Elbit from a medium technological enterprise by Israeli standards into a major corporation in the global defense industry. Along the way, Elbit Systems acquired quite a few other companies and incorporated them in its operations.
Krantz, along with former Elbit CEO Yossi Ackerman, recreated the story of the Elbit flight helmet for the first time in this interview. Krantz, an engineer and computer specialist with an additional degree in business administration speaks about the future helmet, to be used by the pilots of the F-35 future fighter and how it differs from the existing models.
Let's begin with the existing helmet. How was the original idea conceived?
"The idea was conceived before my time at Elbit," recounts Krantz. "I joined Elbit Systems directly from the IAF after they had already developed their first product in the 1980s, which by that time was already fading away. The product, designated 'Tefillin', was a system that measured line of sight and displayed it to the pilot so that he may enslave the weapon systems. It had not existed on the F-4 Phantom fighters I had flown, so I was not personally familiar with it."
How was the information displayed to the pilot back then?
"The pilot had on his visor a collection of dots. Each combination of dots meant something. You had to be fairly bright to remember all of the combinations and what each one of them meant. The first helmet was 'conceived' because in those days, the first versions of Rafael's Python air-to-air missile that could fly in different directions were being introduced. The helmet helped the pilot control the maneuvering missile.
"In those days, Elbit developed the line-of-sight calculation and basic display capabilities. In fact, the display module was purchased from another vendor. They picked up technologies from various sources, developed the first system, and then it was all over. Nothing had worked by the time I arrived. We initiated a new research and development effort. When we started working on it, we realized that a display using dots was not good enough for the pilots. We realized that we wanted to put something better on their heads, so we developed the first helmet – DASH (Display and Sight Helmet) which displayed the actual data. We started flying with it on numerous demonstrations."
The development of the helmet was an initiative of Elbit Systems, with no involvement on the part of the Israeli Ministry of Defense or IAF. One of the central figures in that initiative was Yoram Shmueli, who currently serves as Executive VP and GM of the group's Aerospace Division. Yossi Ackerman, who subsequently served as CEO of Elbit Systems for more than 20 years, was, in those days, the GM of Elbit's subsidiary in the USA. The US subsidiary is located in Fort Worth, Texas, a short distance away from the fighter aircraft production line at Lockheed Martin. Eventually, as it turned out, the breakthrough for the helmet was achieved through a cooperative alliance with Lockheed Martin's chief competitor – the Boeing Corporation.
Were the Americans involved?
"No. It was of no interest to the establishment, but Boeing were interested in our helmet. In those days, Boeing were looking for a device that would help them make their aircraft better. We incorporated the helmet in the F-18 fighter in 1992-1993. The helmet system was used in a competition between Boeing's F-18 and Lockheed-Martin's F-16 as the new fighter aircraft for the Israeli Air Force. We were on the F-18 team, but eventually the F-15I, a specialized model designed to IAF specifications, another Boeing product, emerged as the winner.
"Back then, our 'Tefillin' system was already installed in the older versions of the F-15 and F-16 fighters in service with IAF. The F-15I 'Ra'am', delivered to IAF in effect in the late 1990s, was the first fighter fitted with the DASH-3 helmet. It was an important point for us, strategically. At the outset, we had a prototype of a 20-degree helmet, with a display opposite one eye only. We travelled around the world, and our chief competitors were Honeywell and Kaiser Electronics. Everyone spoke about a binocular helmet with a coverage angle of 40 degrees during the day and night. We had to decide whether to go with the rest of them or do something different. We said: 'this is our helmet' – it does not offer 40-degree coverage, but it is the first product that works. This strategy proved itself. Our helmet was the world's first flight helmet with a digital display. Since then, most flight helmets, worldwide, are monocular with 20-degree coverage only."
"We were the first to offer an operational flight helmet. By 1995 we had 8-10 projects in this field. In those years of the DASH-3, a need for flighthelmets with a digital display arose in the helicopter world as well. In that world there were no missiles to control, but there was a problem with night flying at low level with the pilots constantly short of information – helicopter attitude, torque, fuel and so forth.
"So, at the same time, we developed the NV-SIGHT helmet, which provides helicopter pilots with information while flying under night vision conditions. We installed an optical display opposite one eye, which injects visual symbols into the pilot's night vision goggles. The pilot sees a picture of the world and over that picture he receives data on the helicopter status. In this way, he can fly with his head up ('looking out') and still see the data. This helmetdoes not measure line of sight – it is not very significant in helicopters. The NV-SIGHT system started running at the same time as the DASH helmetsystems for fighter pilots.
"Around the same time we also started developing the next generation of the DASH helmet. We wanted to take another step forward, and in 1995 an RFP was issued for the upgrading of aircraft in the USA. All of the relevant elements told us that we were not in the game, that more advancedhelmets were available and that we would not be taken into consideration.
"In 1995 I travelled to the USA to lead our marketing efforts there. We started talking about a helmet for the US Air Force. Nothing much happened during the first year. They assigned a rather complex task: come up with a common flight helmet for the USAF and the US Navy. This was a complex undertaking. After a year during which nothing seemed to work, they assigned the task to Boeing.
"We realized it was a highly prestigious and important competition and that we would not be able to win it on our own. So, after quite a lot of internal doubting and deliberating, we made a decision to go to Kaiser Electronics, one of our competitors in the USA at the time, and offer to establish a joint venture under a US company that would compete for the tender. To our delight, our offer was accepted and we established a joint US company designated VSI (Vision Systems International), with 50% owned by Elbit and the other 50% by Kaiser Electronics. This company existed on paper only at the time, as we knew that if we did not win the competition – there would be no justification for its continued existence.
Ackerman Misses a Heartbeat
On the night before the actual submission of the bid for the tender, on which the Israeli team labored again and again, one million dollars were cut off the original price at the very last minute, with the team hopeful that this would improve their chances of winning.
Yossi Ackerman, the former mythological CEO of Elbit Systems, who had already completed his term in the USA in 1995, realized that winning the American tender would be a significant milestone in the development of Elbit Systems. He travelled back and forth between Israel and the USA, but at the moment of truth, he almost lost his breath.
Ackerman recounted that after he and the members of the Elbit team had submitted the initial, primary bid to the US client, one copy of the first page of their proposal, including the actual quote, was left in the travel bag of the CEO during a layover in Frankfurt, on the way back to Israel from the USA after submitting the bid, and the bag containing that specific page was stolen.
Ackerman was certain that the theft was initiated by investigators on behalf of the competition, who wanted Elbit's quote in order to submit a competitive bid.
Only two months later, when it was announced that Elbit had won the tender, this suspicion turned out to be wrong. The bag, incidentally, has not been found to this day.
Yoram Krantz picks up the story: "By October 1996 the result of the competition was to be decided and announced. In August, I said I should move to California, to be closer to the action (VSI is located in the San Francisco area). I moved with my family, and in October they announced that we won. It was a complex competition. It was the most massive competition I have ever seen, and we conducted it shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Boeing. During the competition, we spent each day, morning to evening, at the Boeing offices. In the evening, we would go back to our rented apartment to prepare for the following day. We printed thousands of pages and produced countless transparencies. Computer-based presentations were not yet in existence in those days."
Elbit Systems competed against such giant corporations as Thales, BAE and Honeywell. The subsequent stages were a little easier: "In 1998, we conducted the first F-18 flight using the new helmet designated JHMCS – Joint Helmet Mounted Cuing System).
How did you receive the announcement of your winning? By fax?
"I think we received the message by telephone. We had good connections at Boeing's offices in Saint Louis. We received word unofficially at first. We won the tender for a helmet system for US-made fighter aircraft, with every new US fighter aircraft manufactured, F-15, F-16 and F-18, to be fitted with that system as original equipment. Aircraft being upgraded were also fitted with the helmet system. Since then, more than 5,000 aircraft were fitted with the helmet system."
Did you realize, upon winning the competition, that it was a constitutive moment in Elbit's history?
"It took us a while to realize that. Before we won, we had imagined that if we won, we would be able to go to the beach and put our feet up. It was never like that in reality, as we always had a lot of work to do. The actual manufacturing was carried out partly in Israel and partly in the USA."
Has it remained the same to this day?
"It is still being manufactured partly in Israel and partly overseas, depending on the specific elements. Kaiser Electronics had been acquired by Rockwell Collins, who purchased Kaiser's share of VSI as well. Today, our partnership regarding those issues is with Rockwell Collins. Subsequently, some European countries completed an MLU (Mid-Life Update) process and received the helmet system as part of the upgrade. Today, the advanced versions of the helmet system are in use in 25 countries."
Flight Helmet System for the Future Fighter
"In 2000 a competition was announced for a helmet system for the JSF – the future US Joint Strike Fighter. We were there, trying to reach the players, and once again it was the same story – we were being brushed aside, even as VSI – sensitivity issues and so forth. We attempted to enlist the help of IMOD, but they managed to miss every single opportunity to become a part of it. Pursuant to considerable efforts vis-à-vis Lockheed Martin, I was already back in Israel, but was summoned by an emergency order back to VSI, to lead that competition. So we went back to California, and won that competition, too." This time, the helmet in question was a binocular 40-degree model – the first one in the world to become operational. The helmet is also connected to six cameras installed around the aircraft, providing the pilot with a complete picture of his surroundings. When he moves his head, the picture moves with him, back and forth. The helmet is also used to cue the sophisticated weapons on board.
The US-UK corporation BAE, one of the partners in the JSF project, appealed VSI's win and demanded that a separate helmet be developed for the aircraft eventually delivered to the RAF, but last year it was determined that the Israeli group would supply all of the helmets to the F-35 aircraft manufactured in the coming decades.
"Everything can be displayed on this helmet," says Krantz. "You can cue weapon system and even check the status of another aircraft once you have access to the data of other aircraft – fuel, ordnance, radar lock-on alerts, anything. If you have those data available, you can display them on the helmetand use them through the helmet as part of the weapon systems. You can see where your wingman is. You have a symbol that says: 'Here is your wingman, check his fuel' – it's all on your helmet. It all depends, naturally, on what the client wants us to include. Alerts, for example, if an enemy aircraft is locked onto another member of your formation – you will be alerted. The helmet system is a tool for conveying and using information."
If you were an active pilot today, would you consider this totally different flying?
"Not totally different, but flying is definitely more sophisticated – not easier. Now there is a lot more information than what we had in the past. Back then we had to ask one another what was happening. Now, with a single glance around the cockpit, you can see everything and manage everything. On the one hand – you can manage everything. On the other hand, you can drown in the flood of information available to you, if you are not sufficiently competent."
Yoram Shmueli, Elbit Systems' Executive VP and GM Aerospace Division, was the first president of the joint venture of Elbit Systems and Rockwell Collins of the USA – VSI.
Asked about the amazing success of the helmet that changed the world of operational flying with regard to safety aspects and by improving the operational capabilities, Shmueli said: "We had here a combination of a dream and a vision, and top-notch people who had a dream of breaking into the wide world. These people had profound technological understanding, were highly motivated and possessed extensive operational experience. We had the ability to identify the opportunity and make difficult decisions. At the time, the effort involved massive investments, but we had identified the strategic opportunity and decided that we would compete against the world's leading defense industries, and even after accomplishing significant achievements, we never stopped dreaming and developing the next generations and the newest applications."