This little box can help Air Force pilots get through chemical attacks

As seen in movies and TV shows like Jarhead and Generation Kill, wearing a gas mask and suit to survive chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) attacks is an awkward and uncomfortable experience. This also rings true for aircrew, whose job of making fine adjustments to flight control sticks and instruments while flying expensive aircraft becomes much more difficult while wearing clumsy protective suits.

With that in mind, the Air Force wants to make it easier for pilots and other aircrew to jump into their aircraft, fire up the environmental control system, and purge contaminants so aircrew can remove the protective equipment and use sensitive instruments. with the delicacy to which they are accustomed.

“Even a small change in crew dexterity can affect the way the aircraft flies or the type of mission it can accomplish, so if we can minimize the time a member needs to wear their protective gear, it will improve tactics, techniques and operational procedures,” 1st Lt. Andrew DeNicola, test engineer for 28 Test and Evaluation Squadron, said in a recent Air Force press release.

An F-15E Strike Eagle prepares to taxi to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., to conduct an in-flight vapor purge test, Aug. 16, 2022. This test is part of a larger Department of Defense to assess cockpit environmental conditions after a chemical weapons attack (Ilka Cole/US Air Force)

DeNicola and his colleagues from the 28th TES and 711th Human Performance Wing spent three days at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida last month conducting experiments on the F-15E Strike Eagle, the aircraft of two-seater combat air force designed to plow through contested enemy airspace, drop lots of bombs and fight your way. The experiments aimed to determine how long it takes for a chemical contaminant like tear gas to be purged from the aircraft, and to find possible new ways to remove these chemicals as soon as possible.

How do you do this? Analysts sprayed liquid methyl salicylate, also known as oil of wintergreen (a common ingredient in mints), into the idling F-15E before taxiing. The heat from the engine then vaporized the liquid, the press release explained, allowing the chemical vapor to flow into the cockpit and expose the crew.

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Although they vary from aircraft to aircraft, environmental control systems generally control air conditioning, cabin pressure, heating and other systems that make the aircraft habitable for flight personnel. . With some aircraft, the environmental control system doesn’t really kick in until it’s airborne, but once it does, it can purge any contaminants the aircraft has picked up at the ground, how well the crew can remove respirators and other bulky equipment. this makes it difficult to fly, the press release explains.

The Florida team set out to figure out how long it takes to complete this purge, which helps inform aircrew when they can slip into something a little more comfortable, or at least get out of something. less restrictive.

“The data helps us understand what’s going on inside the aircraft as it operates after a chemical weapons attack and flies through a contaminated environment,” said William Greer, senior CBRN analyst at the 711th Human. Performance Wing. “What we are learning ultimately helps inform aircraft design teams about opportunities to improve aircraft environments and, with better crew equipping, enables crews to execute their missions more effectively in an environment of chemical threat.”

The Air Force hopes this little box will help pilots through a chemical weapons attack
A member of aircrew flight equipment secures the zippers on the radio pocket of the pilot’s vest before the flight in accordance with operational procedures. Securing the pouch zippers ensures the test sensor remains secure in the event the pilot needs to eject from the aircraft at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Aug. 16, 2022. The Equipment in the radio pouch provides valuable data to aircraft design teams and opportunities to improve aircraft environments and upgrade crew equipment. (Ilka Cole/US Air Force)

The F-15E is not the first plane on which the Air Force has tried this experiment. In 2020, analysts at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas attempted the same test on a C-130J transport aircraft. The last time a test like this was conducted was in the 1970s and 1980s with equipment that would now be considered obsolete, the Air Force noted in a press release to the Air Force. ‘era. Data gathered from these experiments could help the military better understand how chemicals behave in an aircraft in flight and hopefully design better, less bulky protective gear.

“We hope this test will give crews more flexibility in how they operate in an austere environment and allow them to fly more missions over time,” Greer said in 2020. “In a few years, we believe the results here will lead the Air Force to deploy new types of protective equipment that would be more functional and allow the operator to retain its competitive advantage.

The vapor test is one of several recent Air Force efforts to make CBRN protective equipment easier to use for aircrew. For the past two years, the Air Force has been testing a new suit for such threats that is designed to be more comfortable and mobile than the older System 66/P. Called Uniform Integrated Protective Ensemble, the new system consists of layered garments such as gloves, a respirator and undergarments, a 2021 press release explained. UIPE’s two-piece undergarment is designed to be more light, more mobile, more breathable and less warm than the previous system.

“Switching to an underlayer allows aircrews to use an outer layer that they are more familiar with, such as their flight suits,” said 1st Lt. Hunter Mangueira, systems engineer for the CBRN Defense Systems Branch of the Air Force, in the press release. “We are trying to make CBRN flight equipment similar to regular flight crew mission equipment, removing the learning curve and any impediments as they fly their missions.”

The Air Force hopes this little box will help pilots through a chemical weapons attack
Airmen assigned to the 88th Test and Evaluation Squadron pose for a photo in the chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear flight equipment set during a developmental test at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., on April 21, 2021. Airmen participated in on-going trials of the new two-piece Uniform Integrated Protective Ensemble (UIPE) Air system. (Senior Airman Dwane R. Young/US Air Force)

The easier the better, as videos of pilots wearing older systems make the process long, tedious, and not at all comfortable. And it’s not just the aircrew who have to deal with it. Crew chiefs and various flight line airmen who operate the aircraft must also wear protective gear, and they resent environmental control systems that remove contaminants from a cockpit.

Working in these conditions is a challenge the military didn’t focus on as heavily during the decades of the global war on terror, but now it might be back in fashion.

“The nation’s recent public health challenges in the face of the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have raised questions about whether the U.S. military is adequately prepared for an adversary who may be emboldened to use biological weapons against the national security interests of the United States,” Al Mauroni, director of the Air Force’s Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies, said in an essay for Military Review, the military’s professional journal, earlier. This year.

Mauroni pointed out that unclassified military and State Department assessments indicate that America’s current main rivals, China and Russia, may have biological weapons capability, much like North Korea. and Iran. However, it might be difficult to predict what these threats might look like in the future as technology evolves.

“The absence of any actual use of biological weapons against the United States may have mitigated concern that potential weaknesses exist,” he wrote. “In the event of future conflict with great powers, it is possible that biological warfare will emerge as a significant threat, perhaps in a form unrecognized by Cold War experiences.”

With that kind of uncertainty, experiments like steam purging can come in handy. Hopefully we never have to find out.

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