Thursday, August 11, 2011

Flight Suits Send the Wrong Message

Courtesy of
Some things in this world are certain; sunshine is warm, snow is cold, and flight suits are out of style. How do I know these things? Well, because I’ve sat in the sun, been skiing in snow, and every time you question the wearing of flight suits someone pops up to offer excuses for wearing them.
Yes the warm sun is obvious, as is the cold snow, but how does an defensive T-28 driver indicate flight suits have outlived their usefulness as a status symbol? If they made sense, or they weren’t going out of style, wearers thereof would not need to argue their misguided points. Yet in all fairness to the flight suit crowd, and a few friends who just won’t quit wearing them, I have decided to take a balanced look at the argument and put an end to it once and for all. Stay with me and we’ll see where this ends up.
The flight suit issue was, I thought, recently put to rest when a little old gray haired lady (I say that affectionately Martha) essentially called the flight suit crowd a bunch of wanabe’s. Pilots got a great laugh out of her article and went on about their lives able to sleep peacefully knowing she had marshaled in the end of an aviation era; the “Nomex Nightmare”. Unfortunately even bad fashion has a way of coming back around and within months the new President of EAA offered a reactionary diatribe on why he wears flights suits. Self-respect was noticeably absent, a hint of condescension wafted, EAA members were disappointed if not embarrassed, and the old debate was revived.
To start I would like to offer an example of a typical conversation about flight suits. This is the Broadway script for an actual conversation that very recently happened when a guy overheard some friends discussing the EAA editorial that should have been titled “Aviation is scary, at any moment something could happen to cause your plane to burst into flames, that is if you are cool enough to be flying a warbird like I am, and I don’t like being laughed at so wear a flight suit to make me feel better” editorial.

Death of a Flight Suit
Scene 1
(Pilots sit in GA airport lounge discussing recent editorial about flight suits when T-28 pilot inserts self into conversation in order to beat back laughter over flight suits)

Pilots - Hahahaha ha ha hahaha

T-28 Driver - In the T-28 we wear them because if there is a fire, the exhaust on a T-28 sends the fire all around and into the cockpit.

Pilots - And?

T-28 Driver - I’m sure you heard about the T-28 where the smoke system malfunctioned and the flight suit saved the pilot?

Pilots - OK, your point is?

T-28 Driver - What, you never wear flight suits?

Pilot - Uh, no.

T-28 Driver - Well, I always wear them in bigger planes like the T-28 because of the fire hazard and when I am doing aerobatics or airshows I also wear a parachute. I even wear the gloves.
Pilot - What about the shoes?

T-28 Driver - Well, uh, weeellllll, hmmm well, uh…..I wear leather boots when they’re available.

Pilot - Exactly how many places have you been where they had fire retardant boots for pilots to wear if they didn’t have their own?

T-28 Driver - Well, what do you fly?

Pilot - Anything I can get my hands on.

T-28 Driver - Well, you’re coming from Oshkosh, what have you flown to Oshkosh?

Pilot - Everything from Twin R2800 powered WWII Patrol Bombers to DC-3’s to Cubs.

T-28 Driver - And you never wear a flight suit?

Pilot - Uh, no.

T-28 Driver - Well, I always wear mine.

Pilot - And, if you aren’t wearing fire proof boots and a parachute, and a helmet then you are just playing dress up.

T-28 Driver - (exits scene)

I share this scene with you because it is real and includes nearly every illogical argument for flights suits you commonly hear. Big warbirds are fire hazards (your little plane isn’t) and I wear Nomex to save my life (I’m smarter than you). Yeah there’s only two but the arguments to back them up often lead to more and more confusing thought paths.
Let’s talk about the big warbirds are fire hazards excuse. This excuse evolved from “protect myself from fire” years ago. I say evolved because the inference that big warbirds have a much higher chance of becoming fireballs also very subtly conveys the notion a pilot must have huge balls and tons of skill to fly a plane like that. Neither of which is true but it sure does make the pilot sound like a hero doesn’t it?
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. The larger the bird the larger the engine and usually the larger the fuel capacity. Therefore, one could argue that there is a risk for a physically larger fire should one break out. Fuel lines are larger and in a few larger planes more fuel lines run through or near the cockpit area of the fuselage. Keep increasing the size though and eventually planes get so large there is no fuel within ten to twenty feet of the cockpit. You might also hear about carburetors backfiring and several other issues with warbirds but unfortunately for the flight suit crew, those things also happen in small GA planes. This leaves us with the question, are you truly more likely to have a fire in a warbird? I say, in properly maintained warbirds, no. But this does bring up other points for the sake of argument.
Ask yourself, would you rather have twenty gallons of gas on fire ten feet in front of you in big iron or five gallons on fire two feet in front of you in a fabric covered airplane. I know what my vote is, the big iron with more gas. Why then doesn’t anyone wear flight suits while flying the family Champ? Do Aeronca engine fires not surround the cockpit with flames? Are these pilots cowboys throwing caution to the wind? No, of course they aren’t. They are merely being pilots who understand there are risks with everything and that flight suits take far more from the experience of flight than the insignificant safety margin they add and that’s if they are properly donned and complete.
The next time you’re at Oshkosh, check out the T-34’s. This group offers the best example of what flight suits have become. If you are around when they land or take off, you’ll likely see a lot of them wearing Nomex. At first, the flight suits might not seem out of place having just watched them fly formation in their bright military colors with smoke on. But then ask yourself, why do people not wear flight suits in Bonanzas? After all, T-34’s are merely tandem seat Bonanzas.
So again, why doesn’t anyone wear flight suits in their Bonanzas? I’ll tell you why. Flight suits have become the “members only” jackets of flying. Equivalent to a secret handshake or codeword worn on a sleeve, the flight suit of today does little but make the statement (intended or not) that you are or wish to be identified as a member of the warbird fraternity. This is the real problem with flight suits. Expressing so boldly that you belong to the warbird fraternity also consecutively expresses that you ARE NOT of member of the broader pilot group. And trust me, the broader pilot group gets it. It is also not a good message for the President of EAA to be sending out to the membership (See page 1 of August 2011 Sport Aviation).
So, what if you truly are one of the three people out there who wears a flight suit for protection from fire? Surely then you also wear a parachute right? I mean, without the chute, all you’re really doing is preserving your torso so it can be identified in the wreckage. And, if you are wearing the chute, my guess is that you either are not very sure of your equipment, at which point you should rectify the problem immediately, or you believe flying is much more dangerous than it really is. In either case, this is not a good message for the President of EAA to be sending out to the world. (See page 1 of August 2011 Sport Aviation).
Now don’t get me wrong, whatever floats your boat is fine by me. In fact, I know a few people who love to dress up in vintage clothing and fly around in old warbirds and vintage biplanes meeting with kids to educate them about the aviation of yesterday. That’s great. And maybe you are one of the people that just like wearing the flight suit because it has all the pockets and makes the choice of what to wear while flying easy. Or maybe deep down the flights suit makes you feel really cool. People need to have a positive self-image and this too is ok with me. The problem I have though, and the problem most people have with flight suits, is the wheelbarrow full of safety excuses that accompany them. If you really feel you need a flight suit in a warbird, which is again is ok by me, then you should also be wearing it any time you fly anything; no excuses.
As for those of you who only wear flight suits in a select few aircraft, I believe many of you are great people lacking one friend willing to remind you what a flight suit says; I am above you and I am part of a better group. Like it or not, if you wear one you will be kept at arms length by the broader pilot group. Fairly or not, you might even be laughed at.
Is there a time and a place for flight suits? Yes there absolutely is. Are you in that time and place? Only you can answer that question?
Oh wait, there’s one other thing; if flying is dangerous enough to wear a flight suit, why are you not wearing a helmet?


Jonathan said...

Rich, Love the article....however... You are beginning to sound a little to much like Martha. This my friend is a slippery slope. Being so anti-establishment once was cool but now is just annoying, especially since the majority of pilots that support Lee Bottom are part of the establishment.

Ripper22 said...

I guess that all the aviation related military services could save a ton of money if they agreed with the author.

Quax said...

Chicks dig long zippers!!!

Terry Bowden said...

Great article... you hit on several of the thoughts I have had over the years. I agree that there is a place for nomex, perhaps most needed in the flight test profession. But the one most convincing argument I have heard, you missed. Quax touched on it though. One of my test pilot friends stated the #1 reason he likes his flight suit is because the zipper goes from the BOTTOM-UP. Better configuration for use of the relief tube. ... just sayin...

Unknown said...

Rich -

I normally agree with your editorials 100%, but I think you are completely off-base on this one. To discourage the use of ANY Safety Equipment because you think it's "Not Cool" is Highly Irresponsible.

Sean Tucker wears a flight suit, and Mike Goulian, and Patty Wagstaff. Are they “Wannabes”?

I saw a man burn to death in a completely survivable aircraft accident because no one could reach through the flames to unbuckle his seat belt. Amanda Franklin was the last straw for me, when she died after suffering her burns for 75 days, I joined the “flight suit crowd”.

If a flight suit buys you any protection from fire whatsoever, even if it’s just 2 minutes to get it on the ground (Liberty Belle took 1 min, 40 sec.), or lets you extricate yourself from the burning wreckage, even if you burn your feet in the process, I say it’s worth it. My Dad used to say “Any landing you can walk (or crawl) away from is a good one”.

How would you feel knowing that some young aviator decided NOT to wear a flight suit because you said they were “Not Cool”, and died in a survivable accident as a result? (perhaps suffering 75 days in the process?) Are you ready to live with that?

You should re-think this one.

- Dave Desmon

Dan Schiffer said...

First it was Martha and now you have taken up the so called speaking for the masses of all pilots who don't own or fly surplus miltary piston, jet or rotor type aircraft.
When you speak out in any form and particularly when you've decided to belittle by making fun of people and then trying to justify your own misinformed and rude attack by implying support from many other pilots, tells me how little effort you've made to research the real reason for the wearing of safety gear which includes the flight suit.
Yours and Martha's rant reminds me of elementary or high school brats picking on other students because they were different. It was immature then and not excused but explained, but amongst adults its, to say the least, uncomplimentary.
If you Care to take the time to learn the real reason many (not all...but they should) pilots flying surplus military aircraft, wear safety clothing, such as fire resistant shoes, gloves, suits, protective helmets and strap into current parachutes. I would ask you to not take my word for it but the rules established by the several Surplus Military Aircraft Type organizations that really can and do represent the many dedicated pilot owners and operators of these aircraft. Organizations like RPA nearly 500 members, CJAA 400 members, NATA 1500 members, and there's more..even the EAA would be a source but you've already attempted to make a joke out of it's leadership.
Unlike you, I speak only for myself and I'll let the thousands of pilots whom are members of the many organizations speak directly or thru their organization to you, that is if your not totally closed minded on this issue.

Rich Davidson said...

I'll try to cover everyone. Jonathan, my concern is what you believe to be "the establishment". Do you like the establishment, whatever it is? Is the wearing of flight suits really considered part of the establishment? I saw EAA stats recently and Warbirds was a small fraction of the EAA org. I'm lost here. If you like being fed the same stories by every magazine and being told everything is rosy and every six months that GA shipments are set to pick up (which they never do) and you believe that to be the what the establishment is, then I am anti-establishment. As for our crowd here at Lee Bottom, these people are the establishment in my eyes. They love flying, they save their pennies to fly, and they go where they are welcome, like Lee Bottom. They also get less and less for their membership dues at organizations that give more and more to the small percentage that wears flight suits. Maybe like Reagan, GA did not leave the establishment, it left us.
Terry, I said it was up to you to decide why you wear them. The zippers make it easy but the flight suit gives you a stroke in hot weather. Myself, I've worn them as a mechanics bib and when I needed a lot of pockets. Yet then I found they were not very handy after all and went back to shorts and a t-shirt.

Rich Davidson said...

Part two:
Dave - When I write these things, I expect people to read the entire thing and then put some reason to it. When you have to spell every single possibiliy out, then it loses something. Read it and you'll see that I clearly say there is a time and a place for flight suits. Myself, I would say airshow aerobatics is easily in that time and place. Another would be racing at Reno. And still another flying fire bombers. If you survived the crash, you might not die in a forest fire. If a young reader reads this and dies because of it, someone didn't do their job teaching him to read and reason. That is their fault. Furthermore, what is it with the obcessions over safety? We pass each other every day on the road with a combined speed of over 100mph and only two feet apart yet we don't wear helmets or fire retartent suits in our cars. The point is, at what point do you stop and at what point are you fooling yourself, and at what point are you just trying to be cool? You tell me? What I tried to point out though was how the general population sees flight suits so that when you get laughed at, you'll know why. I believe I also clarified that the question remains if that is right or wrong. I can always tell the flight suit wearers because they immediately start jumping up and down having never really read the entire thing. As soon as the suit was threatened, they quit reading and went nuts. Read it again please. And let me share this bit from a lesser known Appalachian Philosopher - To the weak, safety is a vice; to oppressors a weapon.
Dan - to you I also say read it again. If you wear the socks, the shoes, the suit, the helmet and the chute, that is completely fine with me. I do not have a problem with that. You obviously are very concerned about fire and so you wear all the gear. I'm proud of you for practicing what you preach. The question still remains though, why do you not wear this stuff in Cessna 150s? There is nothing inherent about warbird paint that makes a plane more likely to burst into flames. The general pilot population knows this and I merely tried to express why many of them laugh at those that wear them and why so many are turned off by them. Not one of you flight suit guys answered those questions. The flight suit crowd never does; why? Here's your chance. The questions: why not wear them in every airplane? Why do you not wear all the equipment but only part of it? Why? While I have you here and since you are obviously educated in red star aircraft, can you fill me in on what it is about redstar planes that makes them more flamable than others? I'm always open to learning, you know, open minded. You also had the opportunity to fill us all in on all the reasons people wear this stuff but you did not. You brought it up so why did you not just educate us? I'm open to learning, I really am. What am I missing?
As for EAA, the opposite is true. I wish the best for them. And because of that, I do my best to tell them when they are headed in the wrong direction.

Gordo said...

Wearing a flight suit, gloves, helmet, and a parachute is just common sense for anyone who flys big, single engine warbirds. It indicates to everyone, including your wingmen, that you are serious and professional. Let me know next time Steve Hinton takes off in cargo shorts and a headset.

Unknown said...

Rich -

WHY would you decree that Airshow aerobatics or Racing at Reno IS an "Acceptable" place to wear a flight suit, yet flying in the middle of a 40 plane formation at 500' AGL in an airshow isn't? Doesn’t make too much sense to me....

Why is it OK to wear a flight suit flying a TBM "Firebomber", but not when flying the same TBM in an airshow? or just cross country for that matter?

It isn't the forest fire that is going to cause the flames to surround you, it's the crash and the miles of old fuel lines and myriad fittings in the beast. It's the mid-air collision that causes a semi-controlled "landing"...

(Yes, I have friends who have had mid-airs when flying formation. And yes, I fly formation a fair amount.)

Now YOU are the one trying to justify himself, and you are trying to justify that it's OK to laugh at people because they are trying to do something to protect themselves that you think is "Not Cool". It sounds to me like YOU are the one who is making fun of "T-28 Drivers" because they don't fit in to your image of "Pilots". As Dan Schiffer said - that kind of behavior should have gone out with High School.

Aviation is too small, and under attack from too many outside forces to start sniping at each other over perceived differences in what we fly, or how we dress to do it. WE ALL FLY.

Again I say - you need to re-think this. If someone dies trying to follow your dictum of "Coolness" I'm pretty sure you won't sleep well at night. At least I hope you wouldn't.....

And when you need the help of one of those "T-28 Drivers" (maybe a Congressman who flies a T-6???)(YES, there is at least one, soon to be a second...), (or maybe a certain EAA President??) to save Lee Bottom field, but he's just read your attack on him for wearing a flight suit... what then?

There's no shame it executing a Go-Around when the approach isn't going well..... Go Around.

- Dave Desmon

Ken Martin said...

Rich, it is apparent that some of your followers were unable to recognize your use of the flightsuit as a metaphor for what ails private aviation today. I think you are spot on. Is the industry growing? EAA? AOPA? We vote with our feet. The flighsuit crowd can pretend to lead but the parade has already gone in a different direction.

Ken Martin

Jason Hoffman said...

Want to protect yourself from fire? Fine, wear a flight suit. Just take it off before you head to the bar. Saw way too many off airport flight suits at EAA this year.

Randy said...

Gordo, Steve Hinton is friend of mine. We both met at Oshkosh in 1971. Steve flew Leroy Penhall's P-51 and his friend Jim Maloney flew the Planes of Fame Hellcat. Both wore street clothes, Jimmy wearing cutoff shorts and a t-shirt. I remember standing on the wing of the Hellcat and Jimmy laughing at one of the older pilots in his flight suit. We were all 19 years old that year. I got to fly an F3F-2 (G-32A) that year that caught fire while in flight. I bear burn scars on my hands, arms and face because I didn't wear the proper protection, but I did wear a chute. Fast forward to 2011, Jimmy is no longer with us and Steve, being older and wiser wears his flight suit, gloves and helmet when he is driving heavy metal. Besides all those guys who wear leather flight jackets and t-shirts with airplanes printed on them are just showing off to the general public that they are better than they are, right?

Rich Davidson said...

Apparently a lot of people did not read Hightower's editorial. As for Congressmen, if he wears a flight suit but not the whole thing, then that is a concern. Yeah he's a pilot and does everything he can for aviation, but somebody needs to tell him he needs to be wearing the entire gear. And as for Hightower, I have no idea how anyone let this editorial go to print. It was a joke. I have read some of his other stuff that sounds very good. His attitude and his message was very off key for EAA and it did not sound like someone who would go to bat for anyone other than himself.
You guys are too funny. Maybe you should wear flight suits because you certainly cannot stand the heat.

Anonymous said...

I'm actually a grass strip person myself; I fly a few different airplanes from taildraggers to trainers to twins to a T6. I've argued with people about the necessity of a flight suit and gear with some folks now and then, with me being the one to say that I've known, personally, two people who were involved in airplane fires--one of them in an RV and one in a Cherokee Six, and that if the only reason to wear a flight suit is safety, then there's a good case to be made for wearing one in every airplane. But we don't. The risk/benefit ratio for that is low in most GA airplanes, and we'd feel silly, right? You asked why wear some of the gear, and why not wear it in other planes too, so let me see if I can answer that a little bit from my perspective.

The seat in the T6 is a metal bucket, and the parachute is designed to fit down into that seat and provide a good cushion. I practice aerobatics and formation in the T6, and not being better than the rest of the pilot population, I go up high to do it so that I have room to either recover if possible...or get out should I manage to screw it up that badly. When I occasionally do aerobatics or formation as applicable in the trainers/taildraggers/twins, I know darned well I'd probably never be able to get out of (many of) those airplanes anyway, so I know that backup option is out, and I don't gear up for it.

I wear a helmet in the T6. It's got ANR sound reduction, I can hear passengers and the radio over the sound of the engine, and should I have an off-runway excursion, the helmet will certainly protect my noggin. I wear a headset in the other airplanes because it's good enough. I can hear fine. I'm not in an open canopy where if I flipped over my head could be mashed/cracked/squished.

If I am going up to work on formation in the T6, I wear a flightsuit/gloves/gear. If I do have to exit, I've got a little more protection. Flying along in the twins/trainers/taildraggers, for the most part you take off, you go somewhere, you enjoy the flight, you land, and it's not like you're in a higher than normal risk profile.

Last but not least, with warbirds, the gear can be part of it; the history, the tradition, and there's nothing wrong with that. It doesn't make it "holier than thou", it makes it part of where these planes came from. When I donate a ride in the T6, I always offer them the option of wearing a flightsuit, and almost everyone takes me up on it, because it lets them for one flight be a part of history in a small way. The history of Cessna, Piper, Beech et all do not include flight suits. The history of North American does. It doesn't make a person a "wannabe" to honor and appreciate that piece of history.

I understand that there is some aggravation at people who wear flight suits to "lord it over" others, but I don't think those folks are the majority, and frankly, who cares? I'm not sure wearing a flight suit is worth as much contempt as there is about it in this post. Nobody is being harmed by crawling out of their airplane wearing a flight suit, whether they feel they need to for safety or just want to for fun. Live and let live and all that, right?

Bourke said...

I HAD to wear flight suits and nomex gloves while in the Airforce, and that was flying C-141 as a flight engineer, not some hot fighter!
Gloves only had to be on for takeoff and landing, and we all thought it was ridiculous. And not to mention a little warm to preflight on the tarmack in Guam at 30c and 90% Humidity!!
I used to use my old flightsuits to change the oil in my car, but alas, they fit no more!
I thank Uncle Sam!