Today, we focus on the pilot flight suit worn by those who fly high-altitude aircraft like the venerable ER-2. The ER-2 is the civilian version of the military’s U-2 spy plane, a sixty-year-old aircraft design that has a reputation for being a handful to fly. NASA, of course, doesn’t spy. Instead, the ER-2 flies at the edge of space, roughly 70,000 feet above the Earth, to, according to NASA’s website, “scan shorelines, measure water levels, help fight forest fires, profile the atmosphere, assess flood damage, and sample the stratosphere.” But just because it’s being used for science doesn’t make the ER-2 any easier to fly. Last year while visiting Dryden, Doug heard test pilot Nils Larson say of the aircraft, “If you’re having a bad day and the U-2’s having a bad day, it can be a BAD DAY.”
At that altitude and with a partially pressurized cockpit, the pilot needs to wear a suit that is, according to NASA’s Josh Graham, 80% the same as the orange launch-and-reentry suits worn by space shuttle astronauts. The differences between these flight suits and spacesuits lie mainly in the neck area and oxygen system. If the ER-2 pilot didn’t have such a suit, the lack of pressure at 65,000 feet would cause his blood to boil. Looking at the flight suit he brought for demonstration, Graham said, “This is somebody’s father. They need to come home.”
Each pilot is issued two of these suits, at a cost of $300,000 apiece, along with one helmet, which adds another $100,000 to the price of the outfit. The suit itself weighs thirty-five pounds and comes in thirteen standard sizes, though Graham pointed to a pilot standing behind us and said that he gets a special suit because he’s especially tall.
All the current suits—NASA’s flight suits and spacesuits—are handmade by the David Clark Company in Massachusetts. Each suit takes six to eight months to complete. The suit works in layers. The layer we see is yellow, but Graham unhitched the helmet and peeled back the outer layer so that we could view the layer of mesh, hand-woven hundred-pound fishing line. These outfits are designed to hold up with a tear as long as three inches or with a quarter-sized hole.
The David Clark Company also made the Gemini spacesuits, which were used for extravehicular activity in which, according to Michael Collins in Carrying the Fire, “oxygen came from the spacecraft via an umbilical, and then went through a chest pack.” Apollo spacesuits were made by the International Latex Corporation, or ILC, and had an “oxygen supply from a back pack.” Of ILC’s work, which applies to David Clark’s work as well, the book Spacesuit says the following: “similar to sewing a bra or girdle,” “unprecedented precision,” “highly regulated,” “elaborate process,” and “the delicate art of their collective synthesis.”
Collins played a crucial role with the Apollo suits: “My job was to monitor the development of all this equipment, to make sure that it was coming along all right, that it was going to be safe and practical to use, and that it would please the other guys in the astronaut office.” Though NASA’s ER-2 flight suits are already well developed, Joshua Graham does this sort of overseeing for aircraft operations, making sure each suit is ready to go.
One of the facets of NASA’s social media program that we enjoy is the opportunity to rub shoulders with other aviation and space nerds. While visiting the Space Coast to participate in a Tweetup and watch the GRAIL twins launch in 2011, Doug met the granddaughter of a woman who had worked as part of the team that assembled the Apollo spacesuits.
As we were examining the flight suit up close last week, Graham pointed out the small whiffle ball attached to a tether on the front of the get-up. When the flight suit initially inflates, it poofs up. This raises the helmet so that the pilot can’t see. He feels around the front of his suit to find the plastic ball, which he pulls down. This simple action readjusts the neck of the suit and helmet, and he’s ready to zoom.
Some of the flights are long, and no one wants a hungry, woozy pilot. But the pilot can’t take off his helmet to grab a bite to eat. Instead, his helmet has a feeding hole, and food—the sample we saw was caffeinated chocolate pudding (which sounds very useful)—is packed in tubes with stiff straws attached. The pilot can jab the straw into the hole in his helmet and suck the snack down.
Other human needs are also likely to occur on long flights, so the suit is also designed with a device like a condom connected to a tube, which the pilot wears so that he can relieve himself at any time. Graham didn’t discuss what the women pilots do, and earlier in the day, a NASA representative indicated that NASA currently had no women test pilots. What we didn’t know was that pilots must carefully control what Graham referred to as “number two.” If a pilot feels the need to defecate during a mission, he must declare an inflight emergency and return home as fast as he safely can. NASA doesn’t want to encourage a poop that costs $300,000.
Toward the end of our time in this section of the tour of the hangar at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF, or day off), Doug asked Graham about the clunky spurs on the back of the suit’s boots. Graham responded that this aircraft is the only one that still uses hooks and cables in its ejection seat. The spurs hook to cables to pull his feet to the seat and keep his limbs from flailing during ejection. Then, at 14,000-16,000 feet, the pilot can cut the cable and parachute down safely.
The planes are cool. The ER-2 is fascinating because it flies incredibly high. The science is important. The ER-2 and its predecessor have been collecting data since the early 1970s, sampling the stratosphere and mapping large forest fires. Last week’s flight suit demonstration reminded us that the people are crucial to NASA’s Airborne Science Program.