Tuesday, August 1, 2006
Safety, Convenience and Style
Helmet, headset and flight-suit makers are appealing to desires for safe, comfortable, even stylish flights.
Helmets or headsets? That is the question for many operators today.
As the industry, regulators and aviation investigators focus more and more on the safety of rotorcraft operations, many operators find themselves being prodded by insurers and safety advocates to shift from headsets to helmets for their flight crews.
The push is not coming across the board. Corporate operators, for instance, generally aren't feeling pressure to embrace the impact-protection features of pricier helmets over headsets. But those working in more aggressive and variable flight conditions--operators in the emergency medical service, offshore and utility sectors, for instance--are.
"Underwriters certainly are putting a value on wearing helmets," said Larry Mattiello, president of the Grand Prairie, Texas-based AirSure, Ltd. insurance brokerage and a member of the Helicopter Assn. International's safety committee. "When the more sophisticated helicopter insurers write safety audits of clients, they certainly do make recommendations for the use of helmets.
So expect the debate to grow on the practicality of helmets for different operations in coming years, with the logical result being a push by manufacturers to make improvements to their products that either close the competitive gap with other companies or increase the edge where they have one.
Headsets, for instance, can never match the impact-protection features of helmets for helicopter crews. But headset makers argue that where those features aren't needed, their products offer greater comfort and convenience. The obvious edge is in weight on the head. But headset makers argue it is difficult to achieve the noise-canceling capabilities of a headset in a helmet, given the requirements and geometry of the larger, more enclosing head gear.
Some headset makers are looking to build on that perceived technological edge by offering custom-molded, in-the-ear headsets that further reduce external noise by more effectively sealing off the ear canal. Such devices have yet to clearly prove themselves in the more demanding noise environment of helicopter cockpits.
Joyce Telectronics is one of those companies. But "you run into a lot of pilots who can't stick anything in their ears," and want the more traditional headsets like those it manufactures, said Chris Joyce, of the company. He claims the company is the only one, other than the David Clark Co., that makes its headsets entirely in the United States.
For their part, helmet makers are pushing their advantages by improving the fit and load-distribution features of their products. This is particularly important as more and more emergency medical service, law enforcement and other operators shift to use of helmet-mounted night-vision goggles. Such devices add more weight above the neck, which is obviously a matter of concern when considering the forces on the spine during impact. The impact-protection features of a helmet are clearly less beneficial to a pilot if the collected gear on his head is loaded in a way that it is likely to injure the cervical section of his spine, or "C-spine."
Makers of flight suits are faced with a stable and mature market, and so are looking to continue capturing the interests of operators and aircrew members by refining the appeal and comfort of their products.
With a sense of the "big picture" in pilot gear, let's look at some specifics of what's new or improved in the market.
A benchmark for helicopter helmets is the HGU-56/P made by Gentex Corp., which the U.S. Army has selected as its standard issue for rotary-wing crews. U.S. Air Force and Coast Guard helicopter pilots also wear the -56. It is designed to offer enhanced features that improve fit, functionality, mission adaptability and head safety and protection. The helmet comes standard with a clear visor or neutral visor, but Gentex offers laser, high-contrast and gradient visors to improve visual acuity in day, night or inclement weather conditions.
The HGU-56/P is designed to protect pilots from blows to the head of 150-175g under specific conditions. Gentex's newer helmets are made with a rigid Graphlon shell of ballistic nylon and graphite that offers "the greatest impact protection," said Tyler Wegge, president of FlightSuits.com, which sells Gentex helmets.
According to Mark Jones, aircrew products manager for Gentex, the HGU-56/P is new for a helmet, in that it's been on the market for little more than five years. As a result, it hasn't filtered much into civil markets through the traditional process of pilots being issued the helmets in the military then wanting them when they move to civilian jobs.
"Civil pilots are more familiar with the SPH-4 B and 5 that they wore when they were in the military," he said, referring to two older Gentex products. They also are somewhat more familiar with the HGU-84/P worn by U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aircrews, another Gentex helmet. "Eventually, the HGU-56/P will displace the older SPHs, especially the SPH-4."
The company's not waiting for that to happen, offering several improvements to its helmet line in the mean time. It developed the ThermoPlastic Liner. Similar to its Super Comfort Liner, the ThermoPlastic Liner is comprised of multiple layers of moldable thermoplastic material that can be added to or reduced to create a proper individual helmet fit. The helmet liner is designed to offer maximum helmet comfort during aircraft maneuvering, acceleration and long-duration missions.
This liner is available as an option on the HGU-56/P and -84/P, as well as the SPH-5, and SPH-4B. The ThermoPlastic Liner is lined with a removable and washable cover is attached with hook-and-pile fastening tape to the helmet's Styrofoam impact liner, whose temperature softening properties allow the cover to conform to the irregular shapes when in contact with a warm surface, according to the company. This helps distribute weight evenly, reduce pressure points and hot spots and ensure helmet stability.
For the HGU-56/P, Gentex is offering an upgrade that includes the Maxillofacial Shield. This is specifically designed to protect the lower face from flying debris common to the helicopter environment. It also appeals to search-and-rescue and other aircrew members who spend a good portion of their job with their faces stuck out on the cold slipstream by the hoist.
"It makes it look like a full-face motorcycle helmet," Jones said.
The Maxillofacial Shield weighs less than 5 ounces, according to Gentex, and offers ballistic fragmentation protection up to 550 fps. It comes standard with dual side-release latches that provide for positive lock and ambidextrous quick release of the shield, and is available in a subdued matte black finish that the company says can be easily custom painted.
An upgrade available with the SPH-5 and the GHU-56/P is the Communications Ear Plug (CEP), an inner ear phone that fits inside the ear cup. "That's very popular," said FlightSuits.com's Wegge.
Another option that has become very popular among helmet and headset wearers alike is the MikeLites offered by Seitz Industries. These are light-emitting diode (LED) devices mounted on the back of a flexible or wire boom mike. It effectively provides a flashlight pointed wherever a helmet wearer turns his or her head. MikeLites are available in normal-light and NGV-compatible versions.
A benchmark of aviation headsets, of course, are the products of the David Clark Co., whose most popular helicopter headset is the H10-13H. The lightweight headset (16.5 ounces without the cord assembly) features what the company claims is the "most advanced noise-canceling microphone available," as well as a foam-filled pillow head pad and Flo-Fit gel ear seals.
Oregon Aero is offering its own upgrades of helmets and headsets, offering its SoftTop headset and ear cushions, SoftSkin ear-seal covers, HushKit passive ear cup noise attenuation kit, MikeMuff microphone cover and ZetaLiner helmet liner. The Kern County, Calif. Fire Dept.'s aviation unit is among those that tapped Oregon Aero to provide the upgrades (as well as to seats) for crews of its Super Huey.
"The combination is essential to us because we fly NVGs for night rescue and firefighting and the additional weight of the goggles isn't as fatiguing," said the unit's chief pilot, Patrick Williams. He said the MikeMuff eliminates wind noise from the hoist operator standing on the skid in the rotor wash. "This cuts down on confusion and allows the hoist operator to operate on hot mike, while the pilot still monitors the other radios."
AVCOMM International is busy selling headsets, offering both passive and active-noise reduction options. Its PNR audio technology is designed to provide a dramatic reduction in annoying inner ear cup vibrations while increasing noise attenuation and decreasing headset weight for added comfort.
The company said its PNR headsets, including one for helicopters, use "high-efficiency, ultra-light neodymium speakers" to provide richer, smoother frequency response. The company also offers a kit to upgrade the headsets with a more powerful microphone, "but most people don't need them," said AVCOMM's Dave Holloway.
He said the company's business has been brisk, with major orders from, among others, Silver State Helicopters. "It's phenomenal," he said. "I can't imagine where all the headsets go."
Flight-suit makers are spicing up their traditional offerings by producing suits in custom color combinations and what is intended to be more comfortable fabric pairings. This is, in part, an attempt to maintain interest in items of pilot and aircrew gear that haven't really changed much over the years. But it also in response to market demand. As the emergency medical services sector in the United States grows and becomes more competitive, operators are driven to differentiate themselves from the pack. Therefore, more and more of them want a distinctive look for both their aircraft and their crews that says, "We're ABC Life Flight."
"The air medical community is a humongous market for distinctive flight suits and clothing," said FlightSuits.com's Wegge. "They're the NASCAR of aviation."
His company is offering a variety of fashions in two-tone Nomex flight suits, as well as matching Nomex jackets.
FlightSuits.com also is marketing flight clothing in fabric combinations such as twill and Nomex that are designed to be lighter and more comfortable than traditional gear. Like other flight suit makers, of course, it also offers flight suits in the greens, khakis and blues of the U.S. military services and the Coast Guard.