Until the late 1940s, fighter pilots had little more than cloth or leather helmets and goggles to protect their heads from oil spray or bumps in the cockpit. With the arrival of high-performance jet aircraft and ejection seats, the U.S. military began to take head protection seriously. The result: a “hard hat” for flight crews—the H-1 helmet for the Navy and P-1 for the Army Air Forces (forerunner of the Air Force)—that became standard-issue gear in 1947.
“Take a fighter helmet from the early 1950s and one from a contractor’s lot now, and they make them not as cheaply but largely the same,” says Harry Hurt, who runs the non-profit Head Protection Research Laboratory in Paramount, California. While today’s helmets have the same basic structure—a hard outer shell mated to a soft impact-absorbing liner—as those designed six decades ago, their shapes, colors, materials, and capabilities have changed significantly.
For example, Boeing has developed a helmet-mounted system to assist fighter pilots in navigation and help them aim and fire weapons at targets. In an oval area on the right inner side of a pilot’s visor, the system displays such information as the location of other aircraft in the formation, status of the pilot’s weapons, and time, range, and direction to the target—reducing the time he would need to look at the instrument panel. A combined 2,500 of the helmets are flown in today’s F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 fleet and another 2,500 are on order, including some for weapons operators in the back seats in the F/A-18F Super Hornet.
Boeing took the Air Force HGU-55 and Navy HGU-68 carbon fiber helmet shells made by Gentex Corporation of Simpson, Pennsylvania, and modified them to keep the visor system level with the pilot’s eyes. Boeing then enhanced the helmet liner with an energy-absorbent filler from Oregon Aero made of Confor, a version of the spongy urethane foam used for astronaut couches in the Apollo capsules. For a custom fit, military personnel can trim the filler until the helmet hugs the face to within the thickness of a sheet of paper. “When you put the visor down, you have to do a little trimming depending on the shape of the pilot’s cheeks or nose,” says Phil King, Boeing’s helmet systems program manager. “Before, if the helmet shifted a bit, it wasn’t a big deal.” But the system is sensitive to even tiny variations from a position parallel to the eyes, so a snug fit is crucial. Each helmet costs about $175,000.
In January, Gentex won a $95 million contract to make up to 24,000 copies of a Modular Aircrew Common Helmet to replace the 27 varieties now worn by U.S. military pilots. The new helmets would cut the military’s parts inventory and standardize attachments for life support systems. Only the outer shell would vary with different airplanes or helicopters.