Survival Gear

In the training command, we were issued three olive drab Nomex flight suits. The design of the Nomex fabric kept it from absorbing jet fuel and wouldn’t burn for at least thirty seconds. So, like most young aviators, I took a cigarette lighter to one of my new zoom bags and yes, it didn’t burn right away, but the Nomex did char.

In the late 60s, Nomex was the greatest material since sliced bread because studies of real live cockpit fires and accidents showed that the older, nylon flight suits melted in a fuel fire and  burned the wearer worse than the actual flames. Hence the new Nomex flight suits.

Nomex, while comfortable to wear, had two other attributes. The same material and weave that prevented fuel from soaking into the fabric also made them very, very hot. They didn’t “breathe” the way other fabrics do.  And, against bare skin, I found them to be itchy when you got sweaty. Most of us wore cotton flight deck jerseys – the same colored ones worn by the flight deck crews – or a t-shirt under the Nomex.

The other attribute was unpleasant because when one got hot and sweaty, which is not hard to do when one is flying in 80 percent humidity and 110 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures, our Nomex flight suits  became really smelly really fast. After one, at most two days, the Nomex flight suits reeked of BO. The good news was that they were machine washable.

When I first arrived in the fleet, the standard survival gear for helo pilots consisted of Mae Wests with a packet of shark repellant and another containing yellow-green dye marker. All had been leftovers from World War II and Korea. Mine was made in 1953!!!  We also were issued survival knives which we carried in our flight suits and not much else.

Detachments going to Southeast Asia were equipped with the LPA-1 and LPA-2 survival vest which had all kinds of goodies along with two bladders, one of which was designed to go up your back and around your neck. In the water, the LPA-2 kept you vertical and your head out of the water.

The LPAs were designed to be worn with a g suit and torso harness which we didn’t wear in our helicopters. So, when they arrived, our parachute riggers modified them so they could be worn by us helo pilots and crew members.

There were standard survival packets that many of us augmented with our own stuff but getting everyone to wear the LPA was a problem because they were bulky and a lot heavier than the Mae West. So despite briefings and training sessions, not all the pilots and air crew wore their LPAs. Our enterprising training officer went off to a local photo studio with an LPA-2 in hand and had buxom model photographed topless as she went through he steps of buckling on an LPA-2. The photos were posted in the pilots ready room and soon, everyone one was wearing their LPAs.

The LPA had a holster of sorts for a pistol. Many of us carried a five shot 38 revolver with tracer or flare rounds and as much spare ammo as we wanted. The rationale behind the little double action revolver was that it could be shot one handed because you didn’t need to pull the slide back to load a round into the chamber. The revolver was light, compact and but I wouldn’t want to try to hit anything with it at more than about 15 to 20 feet.

On one night rescue of an A-6 crew, we were in radio contact with one member of the crew who was injured. We saw the flares from the other crewman but couldn’t talk to him, so after we picked up the injured pilot, we started off in the direction of the bombardier/navigator. By now, he was out of flare rounds and fired several tracers in our direction, one of which went through the thin plastic side window and into the instrument panel where it was stopped by the steel casing of one of the vertical speed indicator! He told me later that he was trying to shoot wide of the helicopter but close enough to make sure we saw him!

Winter time flying was the exact opposite of flying in the summer. The cabin of the H-2 was drafty (the H-3s less so) and despite pulling bleed air off the engines to provide heat, you had a combination of being toasty warm or cold as ice. Your side near the heater vents in the H-2 was warm and the other side cold.

Since we operated a lot over water, survival if one ditched in the cold North (or South) Atlantic or Pacific was problematic. In the beginning we had what we called “poopy suits.” These were an insulated garment over which one wore a rubber, waterproof suit that went from your toes to your neck. Then, one pulled one’s Nomex flight suit over the poopy suit and then on top of that, one buckled on 35 to 40 pounds of LPA-2 survival vest.

No one ever gave me a satisfactory explanation of what would happen to the suit in a fire. I suspect that was because the suit along with the nylon insulation would melt and inflict serious burns, assuming I survived the fire.

The good news was the poopy suit was warm and because it was watertight, you floated. The bad news was that you sweated like you were inside a sauna. To solve the problem, one hooked up a hose to a blower which then blew cold air into the suit while you were strapped into the seat.

While we didn’t look like the Michelin man, we felt like one. The poopy suit was bulky in the extreme and getting into the one was a struggle. To put it mildly, we hated wearing them.

The next generation of winter weather equipment we were given was the ventilated wet suit. The idea being that it would be lighter, easier to get on and less bulky than the poopy suit which, when one was in the water, made getting into a raft very, very difficult.

To don the wet suit, one first had to put on special underwear and then pull on the wet suit which was like wearing a giant rubber band. Once encased in the rubber garment which was inside a Nomex flight suit, one then donned the LPA. The wet suit too had a hose that we hooked up to a blower that tried to keep you from sweating to death. No one had a good answer when I asked what happens to the neoprene in a fire other than make sure your helicopter doesn’t start burning.

Most of our missions in the H-2 were less than two hours long although we were often double cycled because going to the bathroom in either the poopy suit or the wet suit was a time consuming task. The H-3 had four hours or more of gas so you were in for a long uncomfortable mission if you had to wear either type of winter survival equipment. So, in retrospect, we were young and had strong bladders!!!

Later in my flying career, i.e. in my forties, thankfully I never had to wear winter survival gear. This was a good thing….

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