Is it Real ?
Copyright Steven Norris
All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without permission
Over the past 17 years I have been an avid collector of military flight helmets and oxygen masks. Contrary to my personal military experience and years of work with the Department of Defense, conventional wisdom seemed to dictate that pilots could wear what they wanted to wear. I accepted this premise for a number of years until frankly, it became obvious that much of this unorthodox equipment simply wasn't possible in the current military climate. I offer the following observations in response to the bewildering assortment of equipment being offered. Note that I am speaking only of U.S. equipment deployed by U.S. DoD units as I have little experience with international military units. Military Standards as a way of life.
When I enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1973, I was not prepared for what awaited me in Basic Training. The USAF, probably for very good reason, tries to downplay the disciplined and regimented nature of military life. It is in the best interest of the Department of Defense that the general public believe personal freedom abounds in the military. It doesn't. Everything is standardized. Nothing is left to chance. There is a well defined process to be followed when something is encountered and a standard doesn't exist. Interim standards are created while standards are being prepared. In short, check your creativity at the door and go by the book. It may be confusing to the outsider, but there is a set of standards detailed in technical Orders, training materials, technical manuals, operations manuals et al. Inspections are designed to make sure everything is in accordance with existing standards. Training. The various components of the U.S. Military train individuals specifically to configure, fit and repair flight equipment. In the USAF, this entails technical School, followed by On the Job Training and additional training when new items enter service. Individuals are also trained to access and use information such as technical orders, change orders, safety alerts etc. Maintenance, Test Equipment, Inspection Procedures, Inspection logs. In each life support shop, specialized equipment exists to test the various components being used by the organization. So when an organization is equipped with MBU-12/P oxygen masks, the shop is equipped with the necessary testing equipment, procedures and testing schedules. There is routine maintenance performed on communications equipment and oxygen equipment. Visual inspections are performed to make sure equipment is 100% complete and functioning. Military regulations define the paperwork that must be kept and the frequency of, and type of inspections. Aircrew members are required to make their personal equipment available for these inspections. An equipment room is maintained for this purpose. In order to ensure compliance, the life support shop is subjected to a number of inspections from squadron level all the way to IG (Inspector General) inspections and Operational Readiness Inspections (ORI) Nothing is left to chance. This is a very disciplined world and most military personnel will tell you what a pain these inspections are.
As collectors, most of us are familiar with tags on oxygen masks indicating inspection dates. What we don't see is the inspection logs detailing when each piece of equipment was last checked. It is the responsibility of life support personnel to report any discrepancies and take corrective action. It is life support's fault anytime something non-standard turns up in their equipment room. If a pilot declares an in-flight emergency or a piece of equipment fails and jeopardizes a mission, an incident report is filed and an investigation is launched. You do not want to be the life support technician who inspected a piece of equipment that failed during a mission and put a $14,000,000 airplane and aircrew at risk. You also don't want to be the pilot wearing a non-standard helmet in the same situation. Bottom line: The USAF is a very regimented work environment. Inspections are a routine part of military life and while a pilot may prefer something different, the guy in charge of the equipment room has to answer for any non-standard items found during an inspection. If an organization is using a non-standard piece of equipment, it must have on-site facilities to service the equipment and receive approval to use the non-standard equipment. This does not occur frequently as it is a pain to deal with, requires frequent re-certification and makes life miserable for the life support guys.
Are there ways around this? Yes. But it is normally more
hassle than it's worth. Pilots have one of the best jobs in the world and most of them
love their work. Would you risk losing "the best job in the world" because you
wanted to paint your flight helmet or use an un-approved oxygen mask? Are there
exceptions? Not on a long term basis. But exceptions have been made in special
circumstances. Unfortunately, the special circumstances get more press than the day-to-day
operations. This distorts reality and gives the impression that pilots are
"cowboys" doing as they please. Perhaps a few examples are in order:
1- If you see a picture, taken in the cockpit of a fighter aircraft, you are looking at a "staged" photograph. The individual(s) in the picture knew a photograph was going to be taken and may have "Dressed accordingly". Pilots aren't in the habit of taking a camera with them every time they climb into their aircraft. I remember working ground control for the Montana Air National Guard on a couple of missions when photographs were going to be taken. It was part of the mission briefing. We worked the planes into locations (at the pilot's request) for best results.
2- Special Exercises and events could mean custom paint. William Tell is (don't know if they still have it or not) a live fire exercise held at Tyndall Air Force Base every other year. Squadrons used to dress up their planes expressly for the exercise. As I recall, one year in the mid 70s, the Montana Air Guard pilot's landed their planes, took off their flight helmets and donned cowboy hats prior to taxiing to the ramp area. Colorful paint schemes abounded.
3- Commorative Events. When individuals are re-assigned and/or retire, there is almost always a going away party ( wear your party suit). Depending on the rank and importance of the individual, a flight helmet might be decorated and presented to the individual. There have been several of these helmets sold on E-Bay. Notable was a USAF helmet decorated in full SAC colors. Aircraft manufacturers have staged photographs, handing out nicely painted helmets in order to enhance the publicity value of an event such as an aircraft roll out etc.
4- A commanding Officer can get away with things mortals can not. But the commander works for someone, and if he is "Leading by Example" his equipment looks like everyone else's. As for Generals, Admirals and the Red Ass Monkey, the more they stand out the easier it is to spot them. All three are prone to do things merely to attract attention.
5- There have been a number of helmet studies undertaken in which pilots will "test" a specific helmet. One of the more famous of these studies involved the USAF HGU-15/P. Contrary to what is reported in "Jet Age Flight Helmets", the HGU-15/P existed prior to the HGU-20/P (no surprise here) and a squadron level test using F-104 pilots was undertaken about 4 years before the HGU-20/P even existed. Robert Shaw Controls produced the helmets and the documentation for this test. Unfortunately, while the test reports still exist, few of these HGU-15/Ps have survived.
6- After all there's a war going on. In a combat zone, where spare parts may not be readily available, expect some non-standard things will be done. Desert Storm produced its share of anomalies but most were "fixed" as soon as the units rotated stateside.
7- Some aircrew members might "push the envelop" by having a second helmet that they don't leave in the equipment room. This can be very risky as it has only one purpose: to circumvent the life support inspection process. IT IS FROWNED ON!
So how did all these non-standard things get into public circulation? There are basically 4 ways a piece of equipment gets into Circulation:
1- The aircrew member took his equipment with him. Overall, only about 10% of the equipment in circulation would appear to actually come from the flyer. Normally, these item's are complete and 100% accurate. But equipment from this source is rare.
2- The equipment was disposed of through DRMO.
Defense Re-utilization and Marketing Office handles the disposal of surplus equipment for
the US Armed forces. Seldom do they auction off a complete flight helmet. The majority of
flight helmets are sold in pieces and/or de-militarized. Surplus dealers and aviation
dealers routinely purchase helmet shells, visor parts etc. and put them back together. The
dealers do not necessarily follow technical orders when doing this. Further, DRMO will
dispose of brand new parts, still in the box. Right now, VTEC liners, APH-6 dual visor
assemblies, TPLs, oxygen mask receivers (to name a few parts) are all being offered by
surplus and aviation dealers. It isn't hard for dealers to figure out that something
"fits" on a particular helmet and put it together that way. While there are some
very reputable aviation dealers who make every attempt to rebuild an item accurately,
there are dealers who do not hold themselves to this type of standard. In many cases, the
dealer will take what is available and put together a flight helmet. As these items enter
circulation, they receive notice and acceptance because "Pilots can do what they
1- HGU-26/Ps are routinely offered on E-Bay with VTEC liners. There is no evidence that the USAF ever used the VTEC liner in the HGU-26/P. In fact, the USAF has an earlier form fit system that was in use before the VTEC liner was adopted by the Navy.In point of fact, the USAF system was in use as early as 1956!
2- White, two piece Styrofoam liners were used in later APH-6 and PRK-37/P helmet assemblies. These liners are very hard to find, but VTEC liners are everywhere. It was inevitable that APH-6 helmets with VTEC liners would start showing up. Preliminary evidence indicates that the APH-6 could not use the VTEC liners due to the contour of the APH-6 helmet and the lack of an edgeroll to hold the liner in place.
3- An MBU-5/P Oxygen mask must be modified to be used on a Navy flight Helmet. A number of these masks have been offered on Navy helmets without the required modifications.
4- Navy visor cover on a USAF Helmet. The helmet is built up from an HGU-22/P Shell but the visor cover has the Navy decal on it. Navy and Air Force earphones are different and easily checked. The only thing wrong with this helmet is the decal.
5- HGU-33/P Thunderbird Helmets or HGU-26/P Blue Angels Helmets. The USAF used the HGU-26/P the US Navy used the HGU-33/P. They look similar, but are not.
6- MBU-12/P mask versus MBU-14/P through MBU-17/P. The MBU-12/P is used on USAF helmets, the MBU-14 through MBU-17 are used on Navy helmets. Same basic mask, subtle differences in hardware.
7- MBU-20/P, MBU-23/P and the MBU-24/P Oxygen mask. MBU-20/P is the Combat Edge mask used by the USAF. The MBU-24/P is the Navy version. The MBU-23/P looks like the MBU-24/P but is designed to replace the MBU-14/P through MBU-17/P oxygen masks where the occipital bladder is not being used. There are differences!
8- Another very common mistake is an early USAF MS-22001 on a Navy helmet or vice versa. There are differences.
3- Equipment is Commercially Available.. Flight Suits Ltd. Continues to sell the HGU-33/P commercially. Flight Suit's HGU-33/P uses a black styrofoam liner and Thermo-plastic liner (TPL) . According to Flight Suits, the styrofoam liner used in the HGU-33/P is not the same shape as that used in the HGU-55/P. It is also noteworthy that this configuration was not used by the US Navy. Bottom line: while the HGU-33/P remains a commercially available helmet it is not configured like the U.S. Navy version.
4 Equipment is used Internationally. There are a number of examples of flight helmets that are no longer in use in the United States military that are still in service with other countries. Some of these countries have their own sources of supply and have modified some of the parts used. Collectors should make sure they know what they are buying. It might not be "correct" for the US Navy, but it is perfectly acceptable in the Netherlands. I think it is important that collectors authenticate a helmet before paying a huge sum of money for something that has no real value as a collectible. Exceptions should come along once in a while, but not at the current frequency. And, an exception should always have documentation with it. It should also be noted that painting a helmet is a relatively easy thing to do and can be done for under $100 at your local motorcycle shop. Decals are readily available and take a few minutes to put on a helmet. Finally, I was visiting an acquaintance who happened to be an ex-USN A-6 pilot. On a shelf in his home, this ex Navy pilot prominently displays his flight helmet, along with a number of photographs. What I found odd about the photographs was that this flyer wasn't wearing his nicely painted blue helmet in any of the pictures. I asked him about this. His reply was simple. He landed on a carrier wearing his blue flight helmet and proceeded to get out of his aircraft. He was immediately ordered to get the helmet dressed in reflective tape, which remained on the helmet until he retired the helmet to it's current location. So much for pilot preferences.