Collectors of survival equipment have a craving for flight helmets, life vests, ejection seats—even shark repellant.
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, January 2000
(Page 2 of 6)
Patterson explains this in front of Redfern and his colleague, Staff Sergeant Akoni Mirafuentes. “They’ve seen this behavior,” he says.
“We know how you’ve pilfered, uh, I mean collected all that stuff,” Redfern says.
“He’s just trying to make it sound like he came by the collection more or less honestly,” Miraflores adds.
“Actually,” Redfern says, “we’ve got a Lee box that’s one step below the trash can.”
Patterson earns any collectible “scraps” the Air Force discards. He loans the Luke life support facility various parts of his collection so that the aircrews can see the evolution of the equipment they use. He rotates his displays of mannequins dressed in full ensembles so that aircrews can make comparisons to current equipment. He has also built miniature dioramas that depict various ways to use a parachute for survival and loaned them to the facility. More importantly, several years ago, when the Air Force was conducting MIA searches in Southeast Asia, the investigators contacted him to find out what type of parachute hardware Vietnam-era pilots used so that if they found any buckles or other harness parts at wreck sites, they would know the pilot had gone down with the aircraft. Patterson’s collection represents a 55-year chronology of ejection and survival gear for pilots. It is more comprehensive than anything owned by a military aviation museum, and within it there are many histories.
Patterson’s 150-some helmets, for example, chronicle the evolution of head protection from the soft leather, fleece-lined gear worn in open-cockpit aircraft to hard leather helmets (similar to what early football players used) to current-issue helmets with boom, lip, or throat microphones, amplifiers, earphones, and even night-vision goggles. There are stories in even the smallest details, such as how chin straps, oxygen masks, and a helmet’s inner suspension systems evolved.
The faster and higher jets flew, the more elaborate helmets became, including pressurized models for the jet-and rocket-powered X-planes that started flying in the 1940s. Patterson’s collection, arrayed along several hundred feet of shelving in his basement, shows the basic shells and the plethora of equipment that were added to cover the human head as military aviation became more demanding, and surviving a mishap in an aircraft traveling at supersonic speeds posed unprecedented design challenges. Patterson has helmets with reflective tape (for night water rescues) and gold visors meant to reflect the flash of nuclear weapons before missiles became the delivery system of choice.
“In my collection, you can see how some helmet technology went full circle,” Patterson points out. “Visors, which went from external track mounts to internal encapsulation to protect the plastic, are gone. Current-issue visors are back to technology of the ’40s and ’50s. They are really just fancy goggles held in place with elastic and nylon webbing.”