AUGUST 2011 – We all marvel at the high tech fancy bone domes/hardshell flight helmets in use in present times such as the HGU-55/P and HGU-68/Ps etc…..but have you ever wondered how did these get to be so developed and look high tech as the JHMCS??
This article will review the development of the first generation jet pilot flight helmet types leading up to the common P-1/P-series.
In the mid 1940s the USAAF/USAF and private firms worked together with the aerospace industry, so that in under 2years of WW2 ending, the USAAF/USAF was fielding the first ever hardshell flight helmet.
The early generation jet flight helmet era
The benefits of such hardshell flight helmet designs were considered for WW2 use but not fully developed. The USAAF had from 1944 onwards, tried to develop a standard flight helmet specification that could give a pilot overall protection in a crash or bail out. The main issues resolved around how to develop such a helmet. Some experimental trials in WW2 at Wright Patterson AFB had come close to developing a full face helmet.
Beside this limited technological item, up until the end of WW2 , the standard USAAF helmet was either a canvas A-10 / ANH-15 or A-11 / ANH-16 leather series flight helmets. These were really only a light weight covering over the pilot’s head which had sound reduction / communication / oxygen mask attachments , than an actual flight helmet that could offer some protection in a crash. Many aircrew died from impact injuries in a crash or blunt head trauma injuries. A hardshell helmet was thought of reducing some of these injuries.
Only after WW2 ended , did the need for the new hardshell flight helmets become clear, due to the new features found on the jet engined aircraft – such as high ejection speeds and low/small canopy issues. These conditions were ideal for a hard shell helmet that could give a pilot better protection in flight. The early generation jets such as P-59, P-80s and P-84 were being put into service and the pilots were finding themselves quite vulnerable in a crash or ejection.
During the late 1940’s the early rigid flight helmets were still not standardized and this meant some of the pilots were using flight helmets customized or constructed by private aircraft company personnel for their own use.
Before hardshell flight helmets became the norm, experimental helmets were used in the USAAF/USAF. Here we see some very interesting designs and styles using RAF C type helmet, M-1 US Army helmets and mix of different parts as a flight helmet. Note the ear phones with holes in them and the colourful markings.
These “transitional” helmets were finding use in the first US jets such as P-80s and F-84s were they became shown to have advantages and disadvantages. As they were being used, further studies were been conducted leading to new designs being planned to provide a much better hard shell protective helmet. These would house internally the communications elements and allowed external mounting of the oxygen mask attaching system. These tests were conducted by the US Army Air Force’s Wright Patterson Personal Equipment Lab), Clothing Branch.
Beside PEL, there were other places also investing money and time into research – Northrop Aviation’s Dr. Charles Lombard and private companies such as Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation in San Diego, California.
Meanwhile the USAAF did approve a helmet for limited use.
First generation jet flight helmet – modified US army tank helmet
On April 19, 1945 Air Corps Maj. Carl Arnold of the TSEAL-5C (Clothing Branch) requested US Army tank helmets type G-9, for USAAF modifications and trials. These tank helmets were seen as temporary issue item to be used for developmental work for use as trial crash helmets for the USAAF, pending a proper flight helmet project bringing into service a hardshell helmet.
Here we see 2 photos of the tank helmets with M-1944/B-8 goggles / A-14 oxygen masks.
The development work on crash helmets using a trial version of the G-9 tank helmets for use in the Lockheed XP-80 project, was done together by the PEL and Continental Can Company, Inc. Chicago, Illinois who was involved with plastics manufacturing.
Sitting in a early model P-80A is a pilot with a G-9 helmet. Note bright yellow for artwork. He wears a A-13 oxygen mask with a H-2 bail out connector. He wears a K-1 flight suit and a parachute seat harness.
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On January 8, 1946 a report from the AAF Board did not recommend the modified tank helmet for standardization but allowed it to continue in service for a while longer until better replacements were available.
Style 1 helmet:
During early to mid 1945, the PEL branch had developed their own first generation hardshell flight helmet- the S-1. The USAAF Material Division in October 1945 then sent a product developmental test sample S-1 to the AAF Board in Florida for further reviewing.
Other samples of the S-1 were sent to the Bell Aircraft Corporation in Buffalo, New York, for use on the XS-1 project. Lockheed’s chief test pilot, Tony LeVier received a S-1 to trial on the P-80s.
In late 1945 many new types were under testing or refinement for submitting to USAAF tests at the PEL. The leading example been the S-1 at the time. In April 1946 , the designation STYLE 1 was given to the new helmet that the PEL has developed.
Seventy-five were forward to Randolph Field Texas for further service use and evaluation in the P-80 type aircraft. Individual fitting of these helmets to students and instructors ranged in head sizes from the smallest required size up to approximately size 7-3/8 were to be fitted.
Here we see a preserved example on display. Note how it “clips onto” the ANH-15 flight helmet.
As the helmet was trialled, there was feedback from users such as the Bell Company, who were conducting a series of experiments with the XP-83 aircraft. They suggested that a series of recommendations to the Material Command (PEL) be undertaken in modifying the Style 1 to be made safer for use. These issues came to light after an aircraft accident on in September 1946.
Among the recommendations needing to be improved were the built in earphones and mounting brackets, insufficient lamination in the helmet shell and a inserting a corner of approximately 70 degree angle in the crown and back drop edge. Because the pending Style B helmets which by now were under development, no major engineering changes were authorised to be done to the soon to be withdrawn from use Style 1 helmet.
The S-1 had started the USAAF / USAF on the way to introducing what would become a most versatile and well used flght helmet family series.
Style B helmet:
The USAAF Board in January 1946 issued a report which stated that they didn’t support any further use of the experimental modified tank helmets. With this outcome, the PEL went about seeking a new helmet design. PEL asked in early 1946 a number of companies to fabricate a hardshell flight helmet – which would later become known as Style B.
These manufacturers included – John T. Riddell, Strauss Company,Paramount Rubber Company, Amstrong Plastic Company, Mine Safety Appliance Company, Continental Can Company and Hawley Products Company.
PEL had requested that the new design helmet be moulded from laminated 8 ounce enamelling duck impregnated with phenolic resin. The shape overall was not too be dissimilar to that of a football helmet which provides maximum coverage of the head. Space was needed within the helmet provide for air circulation and ventilation in hot temperatures.
Other requirements for the designed included –
- Light in weight, less than two (2) pounds, including accessories.
- Coverage of the sides of the face and head approximately equal to the area covered by a football helmet.
- Fabricated from material with a breaking strength approaching 80 P.S.I. and non-shatterable.
- Side plates to be formed to include earphone mountings and earphones with the cord lead entering the helmet just back of the right mounting.
- A reinforcement on the frontal quarter of the outer shell, made from .020 Hatfield steel.Adjustable webbing suspension for the back to top, with ventilated gores passing through a non cellular, medium texture, sponge rubber which is to be positioned between the sweat band and the shell.
- Earphones mounting to be laced to leather inner cover to afford adjustment characteristics, and to facilitate insertion of sponge plates behind the earphones to meet individual requirements.
- With adjustable chin strap that cups over the chin.
- With durable dot stud fasteners on side plates to facilitate attaching the oxygen mask.
- Outside finish of helmet to be either metal sprayed and highly polished or white durable enamel that will not chip or scratch with constant buffeting against hard objects.
Additionally the new helmet needed to afford good visibility to the pilot while flying , have the ability for head movements in a confined space such as a P-80 cockpit and be able to have the ability to add the B-8 flight goggles for eye protection. Oxygen mask retention tabs were to be built onto the helmet so that a oxygen mask could be used in flight.
The external surface of the helmet was to be a mixture of lacquer and copper flake powder. This combination produced a suggested protective thermal insulation effect on the helmet. The downside to the paint was that it became easily scratched but didn’t chip as easily as the electro-plated copper finish which had been trialled as well on other helmets.
The Style B helmet had a plug strip of rubber edgeroll glued to all around the edging of the helmet for cushioning the pilot’s head against the sharp bare helmet hard edge material. This edgeroll material was black coloured.
The earphone padding and element system, were retained inside the helmet shell by a section of neoprene sheeting material “flaps” which were connected to the rubber edge material and were cut to shape. The helmet had oxygen mask stubs embedded into the outer shell – similar to US Navy developed H-1 flight helmet style.
Here we see initial service tests of the Type B flight helmet. Keen observers will note how it looks very similar to a P-1 eventually and has some features of the US Navy 1st generation H-1 flight helmet
In July 1946 the PEL sent new 12 test sample Style B flight helmets to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at Langley, Virginia for preliminary testing.
By December 1946 another flight helmet design was under review for potential use as a comptetior design. Charles Lombard from the Department of Aviation Medicine at the University of Southern California had created and tested a customised protective helmet for use in high speed aircraft.
Style B-1 helmet:
The Style B helmet was further refined and took the designation of B-1 flight helmet. By July 29, 1947, despite the results from a preliminary test report, which PEL had not heard back from NACA about, further orders for production of the Style B- 1 flight helmet were given. The Paramount Rubber Company was manufacturing the B-1 flying helmet in growing numbers for use under contract by the USAAF/USAF. As well distribution to frontline units had finally begun.
Further B-1 helmet testing was held at the Air Proving Ground Command, Florida. Initial deliveries of the helmet were planned for July 1947. Due to the urgent requirement existing for head protection to pilots of high speed aircraft, this helmet was to be initially distributed to the AAF Fighter units.
One of the more interesting features of the helmet was its lining.It was with lined with a foam sponge rubber and this was used to provide some sound deafening and pilot comfort. Due to being only 5mm thick it was not advisable to be seen as a shock absorber material in a crash.
On 20 August of 1947 the US Army Air Force authorised the B-1 to now be known as the P-1 . Final approval of designation occurred in September 1947.
The most obvious difference from Type B was the oxygen stubs were now mounted on leather tabs protruding from inside the front edgeroll.
Eventually more B-1 / P-1 helmets were shipped to other units. To show how PEL were focused on the design , questionnaires were sent to pilot to fill on how they felt about the new flight helmet.
P-1 FLIGHT HELMET EXPANDED PRODUCTION
In January 1948, the Switlik Parachute Company was awarded a new contract to manufacture the P-1 helmet for service use.
The P-1 was still under testing at various units and problems were found. A report from a unit stated that the oxygen mask attachments were unsuited to high altitude bailuts from fast jets. This risk was still concerning PEL , AML and other departments.
MORE SERVICE TESTS ON P-1 FLIGHT HELMETS
A test was held in December 1948 at the Air Proving Ground, Florida where select helmets were trialed to see which was the best for use. This series of tests was aiming to help Air Material Command to analyse data and to establish a criteria for future development of a better jet pilot helmet. The data would provide information regarding how to best protect the pilot’s head and how to give better comfort to the pilot.
The 4 helmet types which were put through tests included –
- P-1 (ex B-1 type helmet)
- Lombard (Lombard designed and made by Protection, Inc.)
- NAES Helmet (Naval Air Experimental Station / H-1)
- Tuflite (Daniel Company)
From these tests the P-1 and Lombard helmet were found to be the most suitable for flight use. The Lombard design at Protection Inc went on to become known as the Toptex flight helmet series.
Here we see famous USAF pilot Paul Tibbits of WW2 fame in B-47 Stratojet bomber wearing a early generation Toptex helmet. Note the lack of chinstrap, oxygen mask tabs and copper paint scheme. Lombard designed the Toptex helmet to not require a chinstrap. He made the oxygen mask the chin strap in the net result of his testing.
These Toptex/Lombard flight helmets were made for test pilots and select aircrew, been customised and highly prized. The original early generation Toptex flight helmets are very highly sought by flight gear collectors 63years on. Some Toptexs can fetch up to $1,900 US.
Meanwhile the P-1 went onto become the most common mass produced flight helmet for the USAF for the next decade. It would be modified into 7 main subtypes and eventually made in various countries under license up until the late 1980s.
The P-series family was
The full service use , type differences for each helmet of the extended P-1A to P-4B family, is outside the ability of this article to be covered at the moment. Further information can be found online, I recommend visiting http://www.best-of-flightgear.dk/yahohphe_index.htm for a detailed insight to P helmets and reading the list of sub helmet information covering model types, paint schemes and selected Air Forces use of the helmets.
COLLECTING EARLY USAF JET FLIGHTGEAR
It can be done but you need to be knowing what to look for and have deep deep deep wallets in some cases.
A collector owns this rare artworked G-9 football type flight helmet with A-14 oxygen mask. This sold for around $700 US i recall on ebay.
A fellow flightgear collector from USA and good mate of mine, Chris made a reproduction transitional ANH-15/tank helmet early flight helmet a few years ago and we see his end result, a very good replica of the 1945 rigid type flight helmet.
As a collector of WW2 USAAF and early USAF flightgear, i have been lucky to acquire for myself 2 of the very rare P-1 flight helmets.
Both were modified from their orignal state P-1 – into a P-1(A) /P-3 flight helmet model.
Here is a before and after photo of my restoration work where i demodifed it back into a P-1(A).
I used a A-13 oxygen mask to make it more realistic late 1940s era display.
Here is my other rare P-1 a 82nd FIS unit marked flight helmet. This has been modified into a P-3 with visor mounts. The name on helmet, i have researched showed he was a famous WW2 USAAF pilot. Other photos on the internet show similar helmets out there and the flying wing mark was obviously hand painted onto all the unit’s P-1s. I dont think i will modifiy this one as it is rare in this artwork condition.
Some of the early and good condition P-1 helmets (which were unmodified unlike mine above) sold for $4,000+US on ebay in around 2005….. showing the high demand for such a flight helmet still. Collectors of flightgear are all looking for a Style B helmet to collect one day… it seems people will have to just wait and wait. Hundreds were trialed …so they have to be some still in existance in the world.
So we end another informative article on flightgear development and uses. So the next time your at a museum, airshow or flying a warbird maybe, you will appreciate the amount of the hard work gone into designing a modern day hardshell flight helmet.