Ask anyone what their visual impression of a military pilot is and they will invariably describe an airman wearing a parachute and a protective flight helmet. The following is an examination of the development of the flight helmet as an important part of every US military aviator's personal life support gear and a characteristic symbol of his profession.
THE ROMANCE OF THE GEAR
Aircrew Head Protection
in the Jet Age:
Who, among aviation buffs and action fans alike the world over, could ever forget the exciting scenes of fighter jock icy-calm bravado as pilots repeatedly pushed the aircraft combat performance envelope to the limits in such classic movies as ‘TOP GUN’ and ‘THE RIGHT STUFF?’ It took a pretty beat libido and low testosterone titer to sit there and watch those stirring adventures in the wild blue yonder without feeling a distinct thrill shoot down the spine like a Sidewinder missile.
Unfortunately, for every natural born, eagle-eyed Chuck Yeager, there are several thousands of poor souls who, despite having spent a lifetime blazing new paths across the sky in their daydreams, were not favored by fate with the right combination of abilities, circumstance and opportunity to achieve such a lofty ambition as actually piloting a state of the art fighter aircraft beyond the speed of sound and into the heat of combat.
Today, one of the most interesting means these legions of armchair fighter jocks have at their disposal to expiate unrequited yearnings of this sort is to collect aircrew protective flight gear (now known to professionals as ‘Aircrew Life Support Equipment’). Perhaps you can’t actually walk the walk and talk the talk of the righteous brotherhood of Sierra Hotel (a USAF euphemism for 'shit hot') military pilots but you can certainly pursue the fascinating hobby of surrounding yourself with the tools of their trade, and in so doing, vicariously bask somewhat in the reflected glory of their calling.
Of all the ‘tools’ used by the military pilot, perhaps the most glamorous of them all (to the wannabe Tom Cruise) is the pilot’s flight helmet. Just as in the medieval era, when a knight’s ornately decorated helmet summarily symbolized all of those chivalrous qualities that ennobled him as a fearless fighting man, the protective helmet an aviator or aircrewman wears visibly sums him up as a card-carrying member of this elite fraternity of military fliers. Each flight helmet visually tells a unique story about the special requirements for pilot safety and protection modern high-performance military aviation has demanded over the years, as the technology of military aviation has continued to advance in quantum leaps. Additionally, personalised color schemes and decorations may also serve to further differentiate various specimens as unique examples of their type.
SOME EARLY AIRCREW PROTECTIVE HELMET HISTORY
Today, 100 years since the first powered, controlled heavier-than-air flight took place, the advances in aircrew protective equipment span such a great broad range that for reasons of convenience and necessity, life support historians and buffs generally recognize two principal categories: 1) the era of propeller-driven flight (from about 1900 through 1945), and 2) the era of jet turbine and rocket flight (from 1945 onwards, with some necessary overlap of the two periods). It is fairly easy to see, in examining flight headgear from the earliest days of flight through the present, that it has been largely the increasing challenge to pilot safety in terms of the raw physics of flight encountered that has dictated the form and substance of latter-era protective headgear.
In the early years of the 1900s through the end of the Second World War, the aviator’s helmet was invariably made of soft (frequently insulated) leather and was intended purely to protect him from the effects of wind and cold. As advances in wireless radio communications developed, the basic leather helmet began to feature earphones for radio receiver headsets; still later, as turbocharging technology permitted higher aircraft operating altitudes, oxygen delivery devices became standard as well. Early eye protection in the form of rubber-framed glass goggles were adopted virtually from the fledgling days of manned flight as the most reasonable way to protect the eyes, especially in the old open-cockpit machines. This yielded out of necessity, as operating speeds became substantially increased (in jet aircraft), to more substantial, rigid visors intended to protect aircrew from the potentially deadly wind-blast effects of emergency ejection from a disabled aircraft.
Although the crash forces encountered in the early days of aviation were in a sense just as deadly as those created by far more modern high-performance aircraft, little thought was initially given to providing a pilot’s head with added crash protection in the form of semi-rigid shells. Partly this was the result of insufficient materials technology advanced enough for use in headgear protection designs, but nevertheless one regularly finds the occasional concerted attempt to provide sturdier, reinforced head protection for pilots in aviation’s earlier years. A handful of such designs (one French, another Italian, several German) originating in Europe (and many more from other nations including the USA), surfaced in the first two decades of powered flight, consisting mostly of thickly padded and leather reinforced sections added to the upper hemisphere of a conventional soft leather helmet. Further examples are discovered from time to time in studies of flight protection in these early years. In the 30s and 40s, German glider pilot students, for example, sometimes wore substantially reinforced, aluminum-shelled helmets as crash protection in their lightweight sailplanes of the 30s.
In the Second World War, successive advances in science and technology brought on by war research resulted in the development of RAF scientist Frank Whittle’s pioneering axial-flow turbojet engine in the West and in concurrent radial flow designs produced in Germany. Ironically, in the United States, the need for sturdier protective aircrew helmets had been initially investigated by no less distinguished an investigator than American aviation medicine's highly respected high-altitude researcher Dr. Harry G. Armstrong (in 1938), but were somewhat ironically found 'unnecessary' by this early pioneer of modern aerospace medicine.
However, with the higher speeds permitted by jet engine powered aircraft, more thought began to be given to sparing the pilot from the potential hazards resulting from the substantially increased inertial forces encountered in high-speed jet turbine powered flight. Just before the war ended, for instance, German aeronautical laboratories at Rechlin had investigated a protective helmet design that drew heavily upon then-existing steel shelled flak helmets, using a doubled walled outer aluminum shell similar to the NSFK glider helmet. Advanced flight helmet studies in hard helmet penetration resistance and crash-worthiness by Germany’s aeronautical laboratories were in progress when Berlin fell, but again it appears the technology simply had not yet been sufficiently advanced to permit adoption of production standards which truly satisfied the requirements. The closest that these studies got to producing a production hard shell 'crash helmet' for Luftwaffe flyers were the steel flak shells that fitted over the soft leather flight helmet; they were not intended, however to protect aircrew from inertial forces of increasingly higher-speed flight, and were devised instead to protect from flak injury.
As has been mentioned before, prior to the introduction of the new jet turbine engined aircraft of the 40s, the standard flight helmet was typically a soft fabric or leather helmet. As the potential for buffeting in jet aircraft cockpits became known, American researchers’ thoughts focused on devising some sort of enhanced protective headgear to protect the contracted civilian flight test pilots who were evaluating the new jets at such secret testing sites as Muroc Field, in the Mojave desert. The result was a number of what are now called ‘transitional’ helmet designs. These were typically constructed by private aircraft company personnel for their own use and typically incorporated some form of hard protective hemispherical crown attached to the upper hemisphere of the standard soft fabric or leather flight helmet. Examples known to have existed and been used were made from old leather football helmets, phenolic resin miners’ helmets, pith horse polo helmets, and even cork-lined vintage race-car driving helmets. One such design became known as the “Tanker” interim helmet, which used the compressed fiber top half of the US Army M-1 leather tanker helmet attached to a standard USAAF ANH-15 or A-10A fabric flight helmet; this helmet was used briefly by early USAAF Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star crews in 1946 and 1947. Even as this ‘transitional’ helmet was finding application in the first production USAAF jet, research on hard protective helmets was being conducted by the Air Force’s Wright Patterson Aero Lab and Northrop Aviation’s Dr. Charles Lombard.
In late 1947 the first standard USN and USAF production ‘hard hats’ were introduced, made from pressure-molded cotton fabric and thermally set phenolic resin plastics materials. The first standard issue US Navy hard protective helmet was designated the H-1; this one-piece helmet had a distinctive shape which set it apart visually from the first USAF hard shell design, the P-1 (which had been inspired by Dr. Lombard's studies in helmet design at Northrop and the Wright aero-laboratory). After the introduction of the one-piece Navy H-2 helmet (similar to the H-1), the Navy soon started examining the possibilities of a two-part helmet design that used a soft fabric inner helmet over which a fiberglass outer helmet shell was used. This led to Air Force consideration of its own two-part helmet proposal, an experimental study prototype designated the P-2, but the P-2 helmet concept was ultimately rejected and never placed in production. The US Navy, after producing their fully integrated one-piece H-1 and H-2 hard helmets, finally standardized on the two-part helmet approach and this led to production of their subsequent (early 1950s) H-3 and H4 series protective helmets.
Quite soon after it was adopted, the USAF's P-1 helmet was upgraded to an improved and modified version called the P-1A, which was in turn followed by the P-1B (investigation suggests that the P-1B was merely a ‘re-designated’ P-1A). This change in designation may have had something to do with the decision to cancel the Air Force’s two-part P-2 helmet, although that has never been confirmed to my knowledge. In 1953, the P-3 helmet specification, which was the first USAF effort to provide an externally attached and articulated rigid visor (for windblast protection), was introduced. The P-3 helmet was essentially a P-1A/B type helmet to which a rigid plastic visor was permanently affixed. Both the P-3 and a subsequent P-4 design originally used a unique side-latching, trackless visor design; this was superseded somewhat later by an improved visor design on the improved P-4A helmet and in 1959 a final upgrade specification was designated the P-4B (each of the two latter helmets used fiberglass as a basic shell material instead of the cotton fabric/phenolic resin shell construction of earlier USAF P-helmets). The P-4A and P-4B visors were identical, but communications components differed in that the P-4B helmet used an oxygen mask communications cord to link the helmet to the aircraft communications system; this change did away with the so-called "pigtail" communications cord exiting the helmet at the rear, as found on P-1 through P-4A helmets. Incorporating the same rigid external visor assembly used earlier, the new visor articulation of the P-4A and P-4B helmets did away with the earlier complex and awkward side-latch mechanism and substituted a central track with a release actuator mounted on the upper part of the visor. The new central track visor system was infinitely easier for a pilot to manipulate in flight than the early side-latch design (although still less than fully ideal, and there remained some issues involving potential for snagging riser shrouds upon ejection).
Changes in helmet communications system components (earphones, com cords, and connectors) continued to be made throughout the 1949 to 1960 period. As each new protective helmet T.O. specification came into standard Air Force use, older helmets still being used were invariably updated to meet the latest technical change (T.O.) requirements. For this reason, most examples of the earliest US Air Force hard-shell crash helmets (such as the P-1, P-1A/P-1B, and P-3) that are found today are substantially modified and upgraded and therefore invariably do not reflect their original issue configuration (this is rarely the case with US Navy counterparts, interestingly enough). It is not unusual to routinely find early P-1A series helmets that have been fitted with a late-model (central track P-4A type) rigid external visor and corresponding H-143/AIC communications components, which technically updated them to the last P-4B specifications. For this reason, some knowledge of and familiarity with the complexities of the official Air Force Technical Orders applicable to the P-series helmets is mandatory if one is to successfully identify and correctly label a particular specimen. (Note: for a capsule summary of the important specifications and changes effected, see the attached appendix following this article, which provides a useful baseline of basic data).
Faced with a need to upgrade naval aviator head protection, the Navy’s Air Crew Equipment Laboratory (ACEL) in Pennsylvania soon produced (1958) an entirely new protective helmet design called the APH-5, a bellwether design which basically set the general standard for all subsequent helmets used by all US military aviation forces from that time onward. By 1958 the US Air force had evaluated the Navy’s APH-5 design and found it significantly advanced over the old P-series helmets. This led to the adoption of a design based upon the Navy’s APH-5, which was designated the US Air Force HGU-2/P; by 1963 the old original P-series helmets had been practically replaced by the new design with its covered external visor. Partly due to production and distribution delays, the older P-series helmets remained in use well after the new design had been accepted as “standard” and were generally taken out of service when they were damaged in use. Interestingly, when the early HGU-2/P was introduced it featured the same leather oxygen mask snap fastener leather tab system used on the original P-series helmets, but in the mid-60s, a new oxygen mask retention system, using what were called MD-1 ‘Hardman kits’ (an oxygen mask shell and harness suspension system which utilized notched bayonets and helmet-mounted receivers) partly replaced the long-used snap-tab system on Air Force helmets.
The Navy also used the Hardman receiver system on its later APH-5 helmets before introducing a modification on its later APH-6 model, which incorporated a newer mask retention system utilizing unique ‘butterfly’ type pinch releases. The Hardman receiver system with its ‘Christmas tree bayonets’ did not remain in use long, as both services eventually standardized on the presently used ‘Sierra kit’ bayonet type mask receivers, but the rigid plastic Hardman MS22001 oxygen mask shell suspension found increasing favor by both services, in combination with the newer Sierra receivers and bayonets. In passing, it should be noted that there were several interim helmet designs explored by both services (although not adopted in large production volumes); these include the US Navy H-5 (successfully market abroad but not used for any length of time by the US Navy) and the APH-7 series helmets (also market abroad), examples of which may still be found, although infrequently.
One especially interesting concept developed in the 60s period was the so-called 'clam-shell' design. Technically known as the US Air Force HGU-15/P 'Windblast Helmet' (USAF version) and the US Navy AOH-1 / HGU-20/P (US Navy version), and developed as an integrated head protective unit with oxygen breathing system built in, the 'clam-shell' featured a two-part shell that opened and shut like a marine bi-valve's shell. It featured a swivel actuated face visor, with separate articulated sun shade, it looked very much like the conventional pressure helmet used during this time (viz. the Navy's Mk. IV full pressure helmet assembly of the early 60s). While the windblast protection afforded by the whole-head encasing clam-shell helmet design in emergency high speed ejection was excellent (it was intended for principal use in the Air Force’s new Convair F-106 Mach 2 interceptor), there were also aspects of the design that were found to be operationally awkward (especially for high-G air combat situations). These included substantial weight of the assembly (bearing down disagreeably on the wearer's spine in high negative-G maneuvers and turns), fouling of the chin-piece on parachute harness hardware, lack of adequate peripheral fields of vision, and lastly, a tendency to leak around the rubber face seal of the assembly. Thus, after a brief period of testing by the US Air Force, and short term operational flight testing by the US Navy, the 800 or so 'clam-shells' produced on a US Navy contract were rejected and the design faded temporarily into a dusty corner of history (surprisingly, it re-emerged somewhat later in a different form for NASA crews).
One other experimental program of note was the USAF 'TLSS' (Tactical Life Support System) project of the mid-80s, which attempted to combine for the first time all elements of a complete environmental protection package for high-performance aircraft crews (project objectives included high-altitude protection, NBC protection, and anti-G protection). While the TLSS system (an ambitious project from the onset that was extensively flight tested at the Edwards Air Force Flight Test Center, near Mojave, California) was never adopted as originally designed, the many research advances derived from this important project resulted directly in the consequent operational Combat Edge system in use today, and provided proof of concept for many other products later used in the F-22 Raptor Advanced Air Superiority Fighter. Of special note is the fact that much of the precursor research that gave birth to the TLSS system derived directly from pioneering RAF aviation medicine studies of the 50s.
From the mid-60s onwards, modifications continued to be made as advances in aircrew protective helmet technology led to new products, incorporating both new materials and improved fabrication techniques. These modifications included communications upgrades, twin-visor designs (one clear and one smoked, a feature principally used in bombers, training aircraft, and special applications for protection against bird strikes), the use of advanced polymer materials in the external shell, and updated oxygen breathing mask systems. In fact, a whole new series of designs has since evolved, making accurate identification of these items more challenging than ever for those recently introduced to the field of modern era aircraft helmet development history. Overall, one of the chief lessons learned from 20 years of research was that for high-G fighter type air-combat situations, two factors were heavily weighted over all others: excellent peripheral visibility and low mass/weight.
Complicating things somewhat, the wide range of aircraft life support systems used in US Navy aircraft during the 60s through the 80s resulted in even more complexities in helmet and mask systems, which varied considerably from those meeting US Air Force standards. After years of this extreme variance between Air Force and Navy requirements, a mandated effort was made by the DoD in the late 80s to standardize both services’ life support equipment requirements that to date has been moderately successful, with lessons learned about suitable high-G protection and aircrew survival requirements being uniformly applied to the life support equipment of all US military aviation services.
Among the most important advances in recent protective helmet design have been enhancements designed to improve peripheral vision for fighter pilots, attempts to reduce helmet weight to lessen effects of high G-forces on the pilot’s neck, and substantially upgraded oxygen masks and mask retention hardware. Many of these modifications, which are at present reflected in such more advanced assemblies as the US Air Force HGU-55/P and MBU-20/P Combat Edge system (or the US Navy's HGU-87/P and MBU-20/P helmet and mask equivalent CE system) for enhanced combat maneuvering capability, have literally been forced into being by the need to protect pilots from the physically brutal G forces modern high-performance aircraft are now capable of inflicting upon their more fragile human ‘components’. These changes have been prompted by the fact that for the first time ever, modern military jets are being engineered to withstand more Gs that their human pilots are capable of sustaining.
COLLECTING ‘JET-AGE’ FLIGHT HELMETS AS MILITARIA
Today, one of the most rapidly growing areas of militaria collecting activity is centered on military flight helmets of the modern or ‘jet’ era. Although a few individuals have been collecting flight helmets for many decades, only recently has this special area within general militaria collecting gathered monumental inertia. One of the early precipitating stimuli of this groundswell was the release of the movies ‘TOP GUN’ and Tom Wolfe’s ‘THE RIGHT STUFF.’ Focusing public interest anew on the glamour and glory of modern ‘hot’ military aviation, these films created a surge in the area of collecting of modern aviation memorabilia in general. Subsequently, the relatively recent release of Alan Wise and Mike Breuningers' excellent book, JET AGE FLIGHT HELMETS (1996) has predictably resulted in a further massive wave of interest in the collecting of these interesting artifacts of modern military aviation. Although there are some generally overlooked errors in the Wise and Breuninger book, prior to its release there had been no adequate concentrated historical reference to act as a knowledgeable starting point for interest in modern flight helmets (perhaps the most glaring error in ‘JAFH’ is found on page 13 of that book, wherein a P-1A helmet has been misidentified as a ‘P-2’—more on this subject later). JET AGE FLIGHT HELMETS accomplishes this feat in a single substantial tour-de-force of photo-documentation and the book’s cost ($75) is a small price to pay for such a beautifully illustrated and valuable reference work on a formerly obscure and under-researched subject (Schiffer Publications, Atglen, PA).
There are, of course, several even more specialised sub-areas within the general field of helmet collecting which bear mentioning. Some aviation headgear specialists limit themselves almost exclusively to high-altitude protection components such as pressure helmets (and their component partial and full pressure suit systems), eschewing anything more than a passing interest in helmets used in ordinary (non-high altitude) aircraft operations. As this is a very specialized area of interest and subsequent to a recent wave of increased interest in such things by modern aviation militaria collectors, the spectacular costs associated with collecting of high altitude items have recently soared beyond the reach of most individuals of ordinary means.
Regrettably, this same broadened awareness of military flight helmet collecting in general has had some substantial impact upon availability and cost of the more common helmet artifacts among collectors. For one thing, general prices have begun to increase to absurd levels for otherwise relatively ordinary items (due to lessened supply and enhanced demand). For another, more than a few people advertising themselves as being in the business of authoritatively selling aviation memorabilia are now asking unrealistically high prices for items they actually lack any real authoritative knowledge of. Although there are ‘serious’ specialists such as Wise, Breuninger (there are actually two Breuningers, both brothers), Wilson, Gilliam, Daugherty, Norris, LeBeau, Patterson, Mattson, and a few others who have true expertise in these areas, many others lack basic understanding of the technical variations frequently found in early military flight helmets (which constitute the basis of their distinctive model identification). This insufficiency of technical knowledge is reflected in their advertising and pricing of some items far beyond their true worth. The novice collector has, regrettably, no way of knowing this until he has gained more understanding and knowledge on the subject.
An excellent example of this is found in the misidentification of some early jet-age helmets (particularly USAF P-series types) by a handful of aviation memorabilia dealers. As mentioned earlier, the early P series helmets, which remained in use after newer types ‘came into standard’, were regularly updated to meet the latest Air Force TO Standard specs. Consequently, what is commonly advertised as being a ‘P-1A’ helmet by an unknowledgeable dealer may actually bear little factual resemblance to the original “as issued” P-1A helmet that the advanced collector may be seeking (due to the possible addition of a P-4 type external visor, bayonet mask receivers, upgraded communications sets, or possibly even a P-4/P-4 type helmet suspension harness fitted to a P-1A shell). The only method by which one encounters true “as issued” original-specification P-1A helmets these days is when they have come from personal effects saved by a family that had a member on active duty in the Air Force at the time when the helmet was issued and who kept it when he left the service (shortly after it was issued or before it had been affected by T.O changes). As such, and usually painted in colorful squadron markings, these helmets when found today constitute a fascinating ‘time-warp anomaly’ discovery that makes them extremely valuable finds to the serious early flight helmet tyro.
Due to these pitfalls, care must also be exercised in buying flight helmets sight-unseen through mail order businesses, unless the seller is known personally, as attempts to ‘rebuild’ or restore helmets purely for resale profit potential can occasionally be encountered in instances wherein a somewhat less than completely honest dealer attempts to pass off a ‘restored’ item as an original. There is, unfortunately, no substitute for a visual, hands-on inspection of any helmet one is interested in, with reference to type, condition and originality, unless the dealer’s reputation is well established. Still another 'market-induced' practice that has come into being recently, is the practice by some of buying old flight helmet shells and 'restoring' or 'rebuilding' them with new or surplus components. While some of these efforts are exceptional, there are far too many that are inaccurate, less than expertly crafted, and in some cases, completely incorrect. The careful and knowledgeable collector takes great pains to learn as much as possible about the history of vintage aircrew life support equipment so as to be adequately prepared to spot these 'phony' restorations and avoid them when they are clearly overpriced (some of the best information sources are the old military Technical Order manuals and publications that were used by life support personnel themselves).
A further effect prompted by the recently enhanced interest in military flight helmet collecting is price gouging, resulting from increased demand for an increasingly smaller number of items. Perhaps the best example of this is the current asking price for an HGU-20/P “clam-shell” (Aviator’s Integrated Oxygen Helmet, or AOH-1). [Originally produced in limited quantities by Robertshaw Controls (with sub-contractor Sabre Industries) in the mid-60s (and somewhat later by GENTEX for NASA), not many years ago few individuals actually knew much about this very unique and interesting helmet, let alone were willing to pay almost any price to obtain one. Operationally tested by both the US Air Force and the US Navy as an advanced design which provided enhanced wind-blast protection and eliminated the need for a discrete oxygen mask, the AOH-1 design was found to be too cumbersome and visually restrictive for naval combat use and was ultimately retired after a short period of trial applications in USN F4B Phantom IIs, A-4 Skyhawks, and A-7 Corsair II aircraft. After limited operational testing by two squadrons of USAF F104s and F105s, using two custom fabricated ‘clamshells’ made to USAF specifications, the helmet was not procured for regular production under USAF contract. Much later (early 80s), the same design was revived by GENTEX for NASA and issued to flight crews of the first STS space shuttle missions (up to and including the ill-fated Challenger mission in 1986) as an LEH crash protective helmet (known as the Launch & Entry Helmet, it was adopted virtually unmodified from the Navy’s HGU-20/P except for the addition of a second microphone and a Kevlar shell). 16 unique NBC defense versions of the USAF’s HGU-15/P variant were also made for testing in a joint USAF/Army chemical defense program at Aberdeen (aside from these 16 and the two custom made HGU-15/P helmets used in USAF operational tests, there were no other USAF HGU-15/P versions ever made).] At one time these 16 helmets and the HGU-20/P (US Navy version) were available for as little as several hundred dollars each on the open market. Today, excellent examples used in US Navy service routinely bring prices in excess of several thousand dollars! Surviving specimens of the ultra-rare 16 HGU-15/P helmets that were specially modified as NBC protective assemblies (which program began in April of 68 and ended in June of 70) can command as much $4000 or more. As recently as April of 2004, a nice specimen of the first standard issue (1948) US Air Force hard helmet, the P-1, went for almost $4000!
THE FUTURE OF FLIGHT HELMET COLLECTING AS MILITARIA
As this is being written, existing stocks of many of the earlier jet-age flight helmets are in the process of being depleted and are disappearing. Some, such as original, unmodified examples of the early USAF HGU-2/P have become increasingly rare (most were attrited during the Vietnam war, unfortunately, and thus early HGU-2/P examples remain one of the less common finds today), and others, such as the fascinating HGU-20/P ‘clam-shell’, are now beyond the reach of all but the most serious and/or fanatical collectors Still, the story of these interesting artifacts of the jet age is richly rewarding both to those who are interested in the history of aeronautical protection equipment and to those who collect aeronautical memorabilia as a hobby.
This is especially so now that many foreign jet-age helmets of other nations (many formerly hostile enemies of the US) are currently finding their way into this country and comparisons between foreign and US design approaches are revealing interesting advances in the evolution of aircrew protection technology which the US did not instigate or even fully consider! Examples of this may be found in Russian (formerly Soviet) aircrew helmets (ZSh-5 and ZSh-7) which featured visors that automatically actuated upon ejection, and in occipital air bladders which served both to help combat negative G effects (termed ‘G-LOC’, or ‘Gravity-induced Loss of Consciousness’) and hold oxygen masks more firmly to the face during high-G maneuvering. In both areas, Russia pioneered development of the technology that is today considered mandatory for enhanced safety in advanced fighter operations. The use of a snap-strap secured hard visor, such as found on the current US Air Force HGU-55/P helmet, was actually introduced by the French at a much earlier date! The interesting and somewhat hard to find Chinese TK-4A pressure helmet is another unusual design that combines features of several different design approaches; bringing to mind older helmets such as the US MA-2 and English Taylor model E pressure helmets, the TK-4A also resembles more modern pressure helmets such as the USAF HGU-8/P and the HGU-20/P in certain aspects. Also, due to the fact that both ‘Cold War’ nations (the USA and USSR) studied and copied each other’s designs, the Russian P-3 helmet copy known as the ZSh-2 (used with an MS22001 mask copy known as the KM-24 mask) is today a very, very rare helmet and a seldom seen type in the West.
If asked to make a personal list of a few of the most sought after and scarce jet age US aircrew helmets today, I would have to include all the early US Navy helmets (H-1 through H-5), all the early USAF helmets (from original P-1 through P-3), the early USAF Pressure helmets (including the K-1, MA-2, HGK-13, etc.), clearly the 'clam-shells' (especially the very rare USAF HGU-15/P 'Windblast Helmet' and NASA LEH versions), the TLSS helmet, The US Navy HGU-35/P, and the HGU-51/P ICDS NBC helmet.
With authentic, original examples of older jet-age helmets starting to become scarce, collectors must be especially watchful for unscrupulous individuals advertising helmets for sale at great cost as “genuine”, that have been ‘built-up’ (or put together from parts and pieces, and often inaccurately). Most reputable dealers take pains to be honest in their business, but there are a notable few who take grossly unwarranted liberties in this manner. A number of these are found lurking on eBay and other ‘on-line’ auction sites (as always, caveat emptor!).
On-line auction houses such as eBay have had both a positive and negative effect on aeronautical flight helmet collecting; while prices for examples offered frequently rise way out of proportion to their actual value to a knowledgeable expert, a plus side is that many, many interesting specimens come to light that would otherwise not become discovered or found.
Hopefully, however, reason, a sense of proportion, and a spirit of fairness shall prevail as retail business and commercial speculation in the growing hobby of collecting aircrew protective helmets heats up, driving flight helmet prices unrealistically higher in a continuing cost escalation to the hypoxemic sub-stratospheric heights wherein such items were originally intended to protect their wearers!
Addendum: Presently, two very valuable and useful internet flightgear discussion forums exist on the web for collectors and life support historians. Originators of the concept are Sven Schaffers and Ron Kraan from the Nederlands, whose site ‘Flightgear-on-Line’ may be found at (http://www.flightgear.dk/). Perhaps the most useful site, frequented by more ‘serious’ individuals interested in life support history is the ‘Flying Clothing Forum’ (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/flyingclothing/) The purpose of these internet forums is to serve as a central information exchange for anyone interested in flightgear and aircrew life support subjects (helmets, oxygen masks, ejection systems, survival equipment, etc.).