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Friday, May 1, 2009

Tools of the Trade: How It’s Done: Helicopter Helmets

Ernie Stephens

Stitching some leather together is out for cranial protection. Let’s see what goes into making today’s helmets!

If the pilots are the most important component aboard a helicopter, and the pilot’s brain is the most important component aboard him or her, then their helmet — affectionately known by some as a "brain bucket" — is a vital safety feature. Helmets are required safety apparel when operating most military helicopters, and often an insurance requirement for EMS, fire and police helicopter pilots.

Aviation has come a long way since the days of wearing a thick piece of leather for head protection. So, to see how the new ones are made, Rotor & Wing headed south to Charleston, S.C. and paid a visit to Ron Abbott, the owner of www.Helicopterhelmet.com. Ron is an accomplished helicopter pilot with ATP and CFI ratings. In fact, it was his own flying career that threw him into the helmet business.

"I was working in Alabama and wanted a new helmet, but couldn’t afford one," explained Abbott. "So, I bought an old Army helmet and refurbished it. Other guys wanted one like mine, so I started making them."

By 2001, Abbott had opened his shop and gone into business refurbishing and repairing MSA Gallet and Gentex SPH-4, 4B and 5 helmets. Abbott also manufactures a generic version the SPH-4B, which is a popular seller.

Abbott explained that the process of building and rebuilding a helmet is very similar, and took me to his shop area to see just how it’s done. There, I was introduced to Abbott’s son, Alex, who invited me to watch him build a helmet for a California-based EMS operation.

A Molded Shell & Visors

The helmet shell — the bucket-looking portion of the helmet — is usually made from composite materials, such as Kevlar and Graphlon, for their strength and lightweight. Different companies may use various mixtures of these materials or different combinations altogether, but keep their exact recipes a secret. Abbott receives them with the needed holes already drilled.

Shells and visors covers come in several general sizes to create the proper fit for each customer’s head, so once they arrive at the shop, they have to be matched with the appropriate customer. Abbott then sends the shell and visor cover to a local subcontractor to be painted to the customer’s specifications. When the paint shop is done, the two sections are returned to Abbott.

Installation of Visor Kit

Alex Abbott, a licensed helicopter pilot like his father, took a freshly painted shell and visor cover combination from the rack. "We start with the visor," he said as he cradled the white shell on his lap and grabbed a handful of fasteners on his bench. He then took one clear visor and one tinted visor, and sandwiched them between the shell and the visor cover using a set of black spacers, nuts and bolts. A small knurled knob, which will allow the wearer to raise and lower them, was screwed into place.

Installation of Round Mount & Volume Control

The round mount is the black cylinder on the left ear cup of the shell that the microphone boom is attached to. It allows the microphone boom to swivel up and down, or telescope in and out as desired by the wearer. The boom itself won’t go on it just yet, though. But if a customer’s order calls for a helmet-mounted volume control, it would go in at this stage too.

Wiring

Although the speakers and microphone will be added a little later, Alex inserted the wiring harness that connects everything into a single cable that plugs into an aircraft’s intercom system. "We have a variety of cords," said the elder Abbott. "Some people want straight cords and some want coiled, some want long and some want short." The cable Alex needed was a short, coiled one, which screwed into the shell.

Add Cross Straps

A set of crisscrossed fabric straps went in next. They were bolted across the ear cups of the shell and will keep just the right tension on the muff speakers when worn.

Watching Alex work was like watching a surgeon in the operating room. "It doesn’t take me very long to put a helmet together," he said. "I can do one in about an hour."

Installation of the Harness and Speakers

The next thing to go in is what they call the harness. It’s a combination helmet liner and holder for the next item: the cushioned ear cups or "muffs." The wires from the harness are pulled through the back of the ear cups, soldered to the two small speakers, and tucked away behind the foam covering that will be next to the wearer’s ears.

Foam Liner

"This part is tricky," warned 20-year old Alex as he cradled the helmet on his lap with a half-basketball-size section of molded polystyrene foam handy. The rigid foam is what protects the wearer’s head.

"You kind of half to slide it in between the shell and the harness," he said as he gently pushed with one hand and tugged with another to get it into place. A few minutes later, it was perfectly seated and a soft cover was inserted to add comfort. "They can break when you’re putting them in, sometimes."

Edge Beading

Beading is the black, plastic, mostly decorative trim that is pressed around the bare edges of the shell for both looks and comfort. "This hurts your fingers," said Alex as he pushed the slotted, licorice-looking trim into place using only his fingers. "But once it goes on, it stays on." Now, the oversized ping-pong ball starting to looked more like a helmet! All it needed was a microphone.

Microphone Boom & Chin Strap

Alex removed a boom microphone from a bin and slid the open end of the elongated component into the round mount he installed a few minutes earlier. He then connected a nice, new chin strap to the helmet.

Wax, Box and Ship

With everything tightly installed and checked one final time against the customer’s order sheet, Alex hung the helmet on the wall where it will await a final waxing and placement inside of a padded helmet bag for shipping. In fact, as the Abbotts spoke about their very short turn-around time for helmet builds and refurbishment — often less than a week — it hit me.

"We do about 50 helmets a month. When we refurbish them, they look just like new."

- Ron Abbott, CEO, helicopterhelmet.com

Refurbishing

"Hey!" I said. "I think you refurbished my helmet about six years ago!" Sure enough. Helicopterhelmet.com did!

Abbott said that a big portion of their business is refurbishing old helmets to look like new. His company will repaint, rewire and repair every part of the helmet. Customers frequently say the helmet is as good as when they bought it. For my helmet refurbishing included a new liner, new ear cups, a new visor, new lenses and a fresh paint job. It only took a week or so for me to get my helmet back and just as Abbott said, it was as good as the day I bought it.

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