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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
(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?