Warplanes: Special Flight Suits For The F-35

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May 6, 2009: The U.S. Air Force is providing pilots of its new F-35 fighter with a custom flight suit, to deal with a potential problem pilots might encounter when ejecting. The “JSF light-weight coverall” is similar to the standard flight suit, worn by all air force pilots, except that it has  provision for a removable fabric cord on the upper sleeve. These cords are only worn when the pilot is seated in the ejection seat, and attach to the centerline harness buckle on the ejection seat. The “JSF light-weight coverall” also removes a small pocket from the left leg of the flight suit.

When the pilot pulls the ejection seat handle (between his legs), the cords keep his arms close to the centerline of the ejection seat. The ejection seat is rocket propelled, and leaves the cockpit at high speed, and the design of the F-35 cockpit creates the possibility that the pilots arms could be injured (by debris or parts of the cockpit) if they were not kept together during ejection. This is apparently considered more of a problem in the F-35 than in other aircraft.

Ejection seat system costs between $200,00-300,000. Most ejection seats weigh about half a ton, and are complex bits of technology. Ejection seats became essential as military aircraft became so fast, that a pilot could not safely climb out of the cockpit and jump. With the higher speed, there was the danger of hitting the tail. Also, escaping pilots were often injured or stunned, and unable to get out quickly enough.

The first ejection seat design was developed in Germany, where the seats were first  installed in their He 219 night fighters, in 1943. These  used compressed air to propel the seat out of the aircraft. A year later, rocket propelled seats were installed in the He-162 jet fighter. By the end of the war, all of Germanys jets were equipped with rocket propelled ejection seats. While the Swedish firm SAAB had also developed a rocket propelled ejection seat, it was British firm Martin-Baker that jumped in and created a design that quickly filled the needs of most Western air forces.

The U.S. Air Force insisted on an American made ejection system, but the U.S. Navy stayed with Martin-Baker, because the American ejection seat did not function as well at very low altitudes (where a lot of naval aviators have to eject during carrier operations). Martin-Baker supplies about two-thirds of the ejection seats for Western fighter aircraft. The Soviet Union produced their own ejection seats. Over 10,000 aircrew have successfully used ejection seats since World War II.

 


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