According to the “The War Zone,” Article U.S. Air Force has tested A suit designed to protect the pilot from chemical and biological agents
The 461st Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, California, has tested a flight suit capable to keep F-35 Joint Strike Fighter pilots alive in case of operations in a scenario contaminated by CB (Chemical Biological) agents.
The test came after a decade of planning and flight gear system design and build-up testing.
In a press release, the USAF detailed the different pieces of the modified getup:
“The chemical/biological ensemble consists of a special CB suit, a Joint Service Aircrew Mask used for the F-35, a pilot-mounted CB air filter, CB socks and gloves double taped at the wrists. The ensemble also features a filtered air blower that protects the pilot from CB contamination while walking to the jet. It provides both breathing air and demist air, which goes to the pilot’s mask and goggles. All components of the CB ensemble are in addition to the pilot’s sleeved flight jacket and G suit… The ensemble also includes a communication device so the pilot can speak to people while wearing the ensemble with helmet and mask.”
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Darren Cole, the 461st Flight Test Human Systems Integration Lead, described an interesting byproduct of the suit’s communication system in that same release:
“It is a conversational communication unit, which is a box that integrates with the communication system so that when he speaks into his mask it lets people hear the pilot talk… it makes him sound like Darth Vader.”
To test the suit, an F-35B from MCAS Yuma was borrowed, and one of the 461st FLTS pilots, once fully outfitted with all the gear, went about their normal pre-flight and startup operations in the presence of an airborne agent that simulates biological and chemical ones but does not have their same deadly effects. All the while the test team was monitoring their suits for infiltration by the agent. Cole states:
“The first pilot stepped to a clean jet in the CB ensemble and we contaminated it using a simulated agent. The engine run pulls in the simulant so we need to make sure the air is filtered before it gets to the pilot. First, the air goes through the (On-Board Oxygen Generation System) and then the pilot-mounted CB filter to remove any remaining contaminants. There is another filtered air supply blower that provides cooling and demist air to the pilot’s hood and goggles. We also used three air sampling devices to be sure all the air provided to the pilot was clean.”
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Then a second pilot in the same outfit stepped to the jet to test the suit in a known “dirty” environment—one where chemical or biological warfare agents are known to have contaminated the cockpit. They then took off on a mission to see not only how the suit would perform but also how the pilot would react to the more cumbersome configuration and how the thermal loads of such a heavy suit would play into a mission. Lauren Gilmore, 461st FLTS engineer describes the scope of the program overall:
“We purposely chose the Marine [short takeoff, vertical landing] version of the F-35 because the equipment is more complicated and basically has more nooks and crannies for the contaminant to hide in. This aircraft also has full-up mission systems. These tests will demonstrate that the U.S. and partner nations can fly, fight, and win in a CB threat environment and then quickly decontaminate the aircraft and return it to normal operation… We’ve established the procedures to step to the aircraft and hook into it and the order of powering on systems to get the filtered air supply to the pilot… We’ve developed procedures on who needs to help the pilot; how many people are needed to support the logistics trail; how many people are needed to help the pilot don the equipment and how many people will be needed in the Life Support unit. We’ve also noted how many Airmen may be needed to escort the pilot out to the aircraft and recover the aircraft. We helped a lot with the F-35 concept of operations.”
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It would be interesting to know whether the flight suit for Chemical and Biological Warfare affects the pilot’s ability to see the aerial threats surrounding him, especially considering that the out-of-cockpit visibility in the F-35 is less than other Air Force fighter aircraft because of the large headrest that impedes rear visibility and the ability of the pilot to check the aircraft’s 6 o’clock for incoming aerial or surface threats.