Intrepid Museum 2017 events
Rainbow Band
Donate to the Intrepid Museum
Home > Curator's Corner > October 2010 > The Evolution of Flight Suits
The Evolution of Flight Suits
[Error loading the WebPart 'SocialBookmarking' of type 'SocialBookmarking']
Posted: 10/28/2010 4:19:44 PM

This month, the Curator’s Corner would like to introduce a post written by Naomi Hochberg, our Collections Intern.  For the past few months, she has been assisting with the management of the uniform collection.

Hi! My name is Naomi Hochberg and over the past couple of months, I have been interning with Britta Arendt, the Collections Manager.  One of my tasks is to help with the inventorying, cleaning, and housing of the Intrepid’s abundant uniform collection, a task that has proven to be both stimulating and rewarding. Though bomber jackets and blue woolen jumpers are incredibly cool, the type of uniform that most interested me was the flight suit. Aside from their “chic” appearance (anyone who has passed a department store over the past couple of weeks will no doubt have noticed that “military” is “in”), the technology that goes into creating a flight suit extends beyond its numerous-zipper design, as it might have to save its wearer’s life.

Prior to and including part of World War II, leather two-piece outfits consisting of fleece-lined flight jackets and pants were the preferred gear of pilots as they were made of sturdy material, protecting the pilot against any flying debris, such as bugs or oil.  More importantly, many of the planes in World War II, such as the B-17, did not have pressurized cabins.  Bombing raids often occurred at altitudes of over 25,000 ft where the outside temperature could be minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature so cold that skin would freeze to metal, so pilots needed to be well insulated. By 1941, the need for the leather suits greatly diminished when Lion Apparel, in conjunction with General Electric, introduced the electrically heated flying suit.  Eventually, the invention of the partially pressurized cabin, which was well insulated, made it unnecessary for the pilot and navigator to wear the heated suits, the officers could wear their standard uniforms comfortably under the popular and now iconic A-2 jacket. Thus it became necessary for only the gunner, who was still exposed to the outside, to continue wearing the suit. Ultimately, a fully pressurized cabin was constructed in planes such as the B-29, making the need for any heated suit obsolete.

  Official Navy Photograph

What Lies Beneath
While advancements were being made in the technology behind the flight suit, the Liaison Committee for the Emergency Rescue Equipment, attached to both the Navy and Coast Guard, began experimenting on what the crew wore under their flight suits.  By 1943, trials began on developing an exposure suit which would protect a pilot or crewmember from hypothermia should they ever need to eject over water.  Previous suits of this kind were made of nylon, which is flammable and not completely watertight.  Moreover, as they were not buoyant, a life vest was needed, which weighed the man down.  Eventually, a suit with attached boots made entirely of rubber was developed. Titled the “poopie suit” by its wearers, the suit was extremely tight fitting, constricting the neck and wrists to prevent water seepage, smelled terrible, and took forever to climb into, all of which contributed to its name. Nuisances aside, the suit proved a success, allowing the wearer to survive in cold temperature waters without hypothermia setting in for up to 15 extra hours, expanding the window of retrieval.

High Anxiety
Aircraft technology evolved significantly during World War II, soon giving birth to the Jet Age.  To enable pilots to cope with the new speed and heights, new suits had to be designed. Planes’ new dexterity allowed more complex, faster maneuvers, exposing the pilot to increased g-forces. In extreme cases, blood will be drained away from the brain and pool in the legs. Such a loss of blood will lead to hypoxia, or loss of consciousness due a lack of oxygen.  This case was termed “G-LOC,” an abbreviation for G-force induced Loss Of Consciousness. Pilots, though, called it “fainting in the air.” To prevent such an occurrence, a suit, named The Franks Flying Suit Mark II, was designed in 1940 by Wilbur Franks. Named the “G-Suit,” this suit used strategically placed water-filled sacks along the lower half of the body to prevent the blood from excessively flowing away from the brain while accelerating.  Similar to the G-suit, pressure suits were invented, which utilized water filled-sacks along the abdomen and legs to make breathing easier at low oxygen altitudes.

World War II was a catalyst in the advancement of aero-technology around the world. The uniforms developed then became the models for those created in the years to follow. Post World War II, with the dawn of the Space Age, astronauts flying into space were able to do so thanks to the pressurized cabins and suits invented only a decade or two earlier. Even today, with our planes that go so fast they can easily break the sound barrier, as well as flying competitions such as the Red Bull Air Race, pilots wear suits still modeled on Wilbur Franks’ design.  Look around you and you will see leather jackets that could have once been worn over half a century ago.  No matter how they have changed, flight suits have been embedded into our culture and into us.  They are a symbol of our history and our progress. They are undeniably cool.