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Missing in MiG Alley

Outfitting a Fighter Pilot

With their steely nerves and cool demeanor, fighter pilots seem born to fly. Yet even the toughest human beings are unequipped to survive, much less thrive, in today's combat airplanes. Soaring at up to 60,000 feet and more than 1,875 miles per hour—the altitude ceiling and top speed of an F-15—a pilot would quickly black out without his flight gear, a 40-pound collection of vital clothing and equipment designed to counteract the effects of altitude and G forces. In this interactive, find out what an F-15 fighter pilot wears in the air and what he carries in case he must eject.—Lexi Krock


Marty Richard, call sign OPUS, has been an F-15 pilot for 12 years. He flew in the Gulf War and has piloted commercial jets professionally. Now a fighter pilot in the 102nd Fighter Wing, OPUS flies patrol missions out of Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. On the day in December 2002 when NOVA visited OPUS, he was on alert, meaning that he could be called into the air at a moment's notice.

To find out what OPUS is wearing, click on the labels below.

Pilot figures

G suit | Helmet | Night Vision Goggles | Mask | Exposure suit | Gloves | Liner suit | Boots | Harness | Maps | Flotation device | Survival vest


G suit

G Suit
A pilot's G suit (also called "anti-G suit") is a one-piece jumpsuit that protects him from feeling discomfort and losing consciousness from the pressure of G forces bearing down on him. G forces are the forces of gravity that smack into the pilot as his plane speeds through the air; the faster he accelerates or decelerates, or changes direction, the greater greater the G forces. For example, a person on a roller coaster might experience two or three Gs—two or three times his own body weight—pushing his head and body backwards during the fastest parts of the ride. A fighter pilot coming out of a dive can experience up to nine Gs pushing against him, which prevent his blood from properly circulating around his body. Since a person can lose consciousness facing such Gs, a fighter pilot must wear a G suit, which is filled with a continuous flow of air. The air puts pressure on the pilot's abdomen and legs in order to keep blood from accumulating in those areas and starving his brain. (For more on gravity forces, see All About G Forces.)



Helmet

Helmet
A pilot's custom-fitted helmet serves multiple purposes. It provides noise protection and cushions the head, reducing the pressure of extreme acceleration, which can cause headaches and swollen sinuses. Its padding and shape force its wearer's head forward towards the oxygen mask to ensure maximum intake of air. It helps to identify the pilot, whose call sign is stenciled across it. With its tinted visor, it shields the pilot's eyes from the sun. Lastly, the helmet contains radio equipment for communicating with other pilots and with ground control.



Night Vision Goggles

Night Vision Goggles
Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) allow a fighter pilot to fly in the middle of the night. By amplifying even the slightest visible light from inside the cockpit, NVGs illuminate the night in an emerald green and make potential targets visible. At a cost of $7,000 each, a pair of NVGs is the most expensive tool a fighter pilot carries. The goggles attach directly to the pilot's helmet and are used throughout a night flight, including during take-off and landing.



Mask

Mask
A pilot's oxygen mask is one of his key in-air survival tools. He receives breathable air through the regulator in his mask while flying. The mask automatically and continuously delivers air through a so-called "open circuit" so the pilot does not have to inhale to initiate airflow.



Exposure suit

Exposure suit
In cold weather, a pilot will zip on his rubber-lined exposure suit (also called a "poopie suit" or "anti-exposure suit") underneath his flight suit. The exposure suit functions like a diver's dry suit, keeping him warm in the event that he lands in water following ejection. Exposure suits designed for the newest fighter jets, like the Boeing F-22, provide additional protection from chemical and biological agents.



Gloves

Gloves
In the air, a fighter pilot wears fire-resistant Nomex gloves, which protect his hands from extreme heat in the event of fire. The gloves also keep his hands warm in cold weather.



Liner suit

Liner suit
Made from cotton and Nomex, a pilot wears this suit closest to his body to keep him warm, protect him from cold and fire, and absorb moisture. In very cold weather he might wear cotton and Nomex long underwear beneath his liner suit.



Boots

Boots
Leather boots provide ankle support and protect the feet.



Harness

Harness
Like a seat belt, a pilot's harness buckles him securely into his ejection seat (seen here).



Maps

Maps
Fighter pilots carry waterproof maps and flight plans in a leg pouch, which can be easily reached from a seated position.



Flotation device

Flotation device
An automatically inflating life preserver unrolls from inside the collar of the pilot's harness when necessary. Also, a fully inflatable raft is tucked into the pilot's ejection seat, in case he must spend a prolonged period in the water.




Survival vest

Survival Vest
Aptly named, a fighter pilot's survival vest contains all the components necessary for his survival after ejection and a few tools used in the cockpit, from the most hi-tech to the most mundane. For example:



Radio and Beacon

Radio and beacon
The radio is used for communication after ejection. When a pilot ejects, his sonar beacon automatically engages, allowing rescuers to pinpoint his position.



Flare

Flare
A downed pilot can send a flare signal up to 1,250 feet in the air. These military flares are easily seen in daylight or at night.



Finger lights

Finger lights
These tiny thimble-like tools turn a pilot's fingertips into flashlights, enabling him to read maps and flight plans inside the cockpit when flying at night.



Camouflage paint

Camouflage paint
What OPUS calls "green lipstick" is used for disguising a pilot's face after ejection and landing.



Global Positioning System (GPS)

Global Positioning System (GPS)
With GPS, a downed pilot can tune into satellites in order to plot his exact location. A pilot keeps two sets of batteries for this system in his suit at all times.



Matches

Matches
Waterproof, strike-anywhere matches come in handy if a downed pilot must keep warm or boil water.



Tourniquet

Tourniquet
If he is wounded, the pilot can tie this tourniquet around his leg or arm to stem bleeding.



Compass

Compass
If and when GPS fails, a standard military compass can help a pilot find his way.



Fire Starter

Fire Starter
Familiar to campers, a single magnesium fire starter can ignite a fire hundreds of times. Using a sharp knife or a rock, a downed pilot can scrape this strip to create an extremely hot spark.



Infrared Tape

Infrared Tape
In order to amplify his heat signal, a pilot can apply infrared tape to his flight suit, allowing rescuers to locate him quickly on the ground.



Strobe

Strobe Light
Like the flares a pilot carries, this strobe light allows him to send a bright, easily seen distress signal.



Relief Bag

Relief Bag
Though pilots also carry a supply of plastic bags for collecting drinking water in case they are downed, this particular bag serves another purpose. Using the zipper on the front of his uniform, a pilot can urinate into this bag in mid-air during long hauls. The plastic bag contains highly absorbent sponges.



Whistle

Whistle
This low-tech but useful tool can serve as a signal to rescuers or other allies on the ground.




Interactives

We recommend you visit the interactive version. The text to the left is provided for printing purposes.

Lexi Krock is a former associate editor of NOVA online.
This feature originally appeared, in slightly different form, on NOVA's Battle of the X-Planes Web site.

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