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Safety Equipment For Pilots

The flight was planned to incorporate some overwater flying, low level near the coast, and some aerobatics. As I climbed into the cockpit of the ex-military aircraft the owner laughed, pointed at my helmet and life jacket, and asked "What's with all that stuff?". I just told him that it was for my protection. He replied "But we aren't going to do anything silly today."  I pointed out that normal flying may also include the possibilities of engine failure, turbulence, and ditching, whether planned or unplanned.

Next time you go flying, have a good think about what you are wearing
Chances are, you might be wearing shorts on a hot Summer day, with a loud Hawaiian polyester shirt that might doubly function as a safety reflector.  Having originally learned to fly in a local Cessna 152, I was never educated about the benefits or risks of certain types of clothing.  After continuing my flying with the military, I quickly learned that clothing can dramatically increase or decrease your chances of survival.

Now I’m not telling everyone to go out and buy a bulletproof helmet, nomex fire resistant suit, and an ejection seat. The military have good reasons to use this gear on a daily basis. First of all, they want to protect their aircrew. Secondly, they want their aircrew to feel secure. They also tend to push their aircrew and aircraft closer to the limits, in order to make the most of their abilities, which may be called upon in certain circumstances. A sort of ‘be all you can be’ type of attitude.

When things go wrong in high performance aircraft, they tend to go wrong very quickly. Sometimes for the military aviator, ejection may be the only option.  During ejection, your helmet protects your skull, the visors protect your eyes, and the mask protects your face.  The ejection seat has inertia reels to automatically pull your body hard back into the correct posture, and your legs are dragged out from the rudder pedals as the seat rises. Normally the drogue chute will pull out the main chute at the correct time, and you will gently descend to an exciting reception party at Hugh Heffner’s pool. Or alternatively you will land next to the flaming wreckage in the desert, or splash down in the freezing waters in the middle of nowhere.  Your survival will depend to a large factor, on your clothing, lifejacket, liferaft, gloves, helmet, they all increase your likelihood of survival.  How many of us fly with this attached to us during our cross country navigation exercise in a Piper Cherokee?

Dress for the ground – not just for the cockpit.
If you do force land in the snow covered mountains, your cockpit heating will no longer protect you.  Your comfy woollen slippers will be no good for hiking out to safety, and your shorts will ensure that your legs will quickly turn bluer than the clearest of skies.

If you burn, will your clothing protect you?  I’ve never been on fire, but pilots have been known to leap from their burning aircraft without a parachute. Obviously it’s a very unpleasant experience. I have two friends that have suffered horrific burns due to fires, and have both been saved by their nomex, and still fly today.  Most synthetic material will melt, and stick to your skin. Stockings are a bad idea too.  Even a nomex flying suit will still allow the heat to transfer to your skin, with associated burns, so the secret is utilising layers. Non-melting layers underneath the fire resistant outer layers help to trap air, and resist the heat. Cotton undergarments will multiply the tolerable heat, trapping two protective air layers between the fire and your skin.  Don't wear anything synthetic (e.g. polyester, nylon, or stretchy gym clothing) under your nomex flying suit, as they will still melt and stick to you. Leather boots will help protect your feet better than sneakers. Thin leather flying gloves may enable you to hold the control column for those vital few extra seconds whilst you complete a hurried forced landing whilst on fire. These are all worst case scenarios, and I don’t want to scare anybody, but they are all worth thinking about. Small changes can increase the chances of you surviving an accident.

If you are doing higher risk flying, such as low level flying, then consider purchasing some specialist high quality clothing as mentioned.
“Flightsuits USA”, "Sisley" and "Red Baron" retails all types of aviation protective clothing for the safety conscious among us.

A few years back I flew with a formation flying group in California, and I was a guest of CAF pilot Mark Matye. I was relieved when Mark showed me his range of personal safety flying equipment, as I knew that we thought along the same lines, and I enjoyed discussing the benefits of it. The day before our cross country trip, we had a dry run, checking the suitability of our gear in his Trojan, communications, fitting, and location of important items.  In the back of his T-28, there was even a first aid kit tied down in a prominent, easy to reach position. As we were flying into the desert, we prepacked a number of water bottles into our flight suit leg pockets – and we drank a whole bottle before leaving.  We met and flew with a number of other pilots, flying Trojans, Texans, Mustangs, even a Skyraider, and I was happy to see most of them similarly equipped. Sure, we looked like a bunch of old military aviators about to fly a military aircraft out into the desert, and we were. Not military perhaps, but we were just as human as the next military pilot, subject to the exact same survival issues.

During a number of recent civilian flights, I was asked to wear the pilot’s spare headset. However I insisted on wearing my helmet, due to the nature of flying that we were doing. This included close formation photo work, and low level flying.  One of the pilots complained about the discomfort factor of his helmet – however I insisted I would still wear mine. Thankfully he used his as well.  You must get this professionally fitted, and regularly adjusted. Complain about the discomfort – it can be fixed.

Helmets seem expensive, however considering that they can protect your head during turbulence, forced landings, midair collisions, and bird strikes, then they are really a cheap investment
Sure, they will not help you during the most violent of accidents, however for the previous mentioned incidents they could mean the difference between life and death, or saving your family from having to perform most daily activities for you in the event of a severe head injury.  Whilst helmets can be bought used from ebay and the like, I'm personally against this 'cost saving' measure myself. The helmets may have been struck from the military stock, because of damage such as hairline cracks, and the entire comms equipment will have to be replaced to suit civilian radios. Also, the fit has to be done properly, and buying 'online' from a second hand dealer will not get you the right size.  Lastly, if it comes with a visor, then wear it with the visor lowered. It's there for your protection.

One photo flight that I was a passenger in, ended with a heavy landing, broken undercarriage, and we slid to a very prompt stop, with the propeller chewing up the grass runway.  My first such event in 15 years of aviation. Luckily we didn’t flip over, and we were both safe. However I felt much better during that very short episode as I was protected as well as could be. My harness was locked and tight, I had a layer of cotton under my flying suit, leather gloves on my hands, and a new helmet protecting my head.  By no means did it guarantee my survival, but if the situation turned nastier – it could only help.  Believe me, I actually thought about all of that during the few seconds of disaster. “This will hurt, but with this gear on I just might make it”, I thought, as I just hung on and waited for the inevitable.

Of course, dressing like this is not always practical, especially in Summer, or when carrying your family and friends on a cross country trip. 

Minimise the risks, and at least think about what you can do for the safety of all on board.

If you do find yourself in a survival situation, then consider the following priorities: Protection, Location, Water and Food.  For the most part, they should be applied in that order of priority, but flexibility should also be considered.

Protect yourself from the elements (swim, get shelter or shade). Apply first aid.

Ensure that you can do anything to increase your chances of being found. Prepare signal fires, fix the radio, write a big SOS sign in the sand.

Keep well hydrated, and conserve your water output (ie sweating). If it’s Summer, then consider working only at night.

You should live for three weeks without food. It is the lowest priority. Don’t eat if you do not have adequate supplies of water, because your body uses water to digest and process food. You will simply dehydrate quicker if you do.

Article by Mike Jorgensen

Michael Jorgensen is a former military pilot, and he has undergone survival training by the military in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and England.  He believes that aircrew should do all they can to maximise their survivability, especially since many of the methods and equipment are easy, and cheap, when compared to human life.  Whether you fly warbirds, aerobatic machines, helicopters, GA, or even ultralights, please consider what you wear and what you take up with you!