A fighter pilot helmet is a form of protective headgear worn by a fighter pilot. From the first use of the airplane as a weapon of war at the outset of World War I until the late 1940s, most fighter pilots wore headgear made of canvas, cloth or leather for protection. While the image of a pilot with leather headgear, a pair of goggles and a scarf around his neck invokes in many a feeling of romanticism and nostalgia, the truth is the headgear of that era provided very little protection for the pilot.
The leather caps worn by fighter pilots were mainly designed to protect the pilot from wind and cold, not from injury. In later years, these caps were modified to contain communications systems for the pilot, but still essentially provided little protection. The advent of the jet age necessitated a different approach to the fighter pilot helmet. Jet fighters operate at higher speeds than their propeller-powered counterparts and the increased speed resulted in greater aerodynamic forces on the aircraft and the pilot. This brought pilot protection to the forefront of thinking within the world’s military services.
In the propeller age, a pilot of a damaged fighter aircraft would simply remove his or her seat straps, bail out of the cockpit and parachute to safety. The higher operating speeds of jet fighters made this traditional method of exiting an airplane dangerous to the pilot and consequently, obsolete. The ejection seat was developed to allow a pilot to quickly exit a fast-moving jet airplane.
An ejecting pilot is subjected to extreme atmospheric forces as he leaves the enclosed environment of the jet fighter. The ejecting pilot could experience a force of up to 20 times the force of gravity as he encounters the slipstream. The fighter pilot’s helmet provides the pilot with a measure of protection from these atmospheric forces.
In the mid to late 1940s some pilots resorted to using such items as modified football helmets, army tank helmets, and race car helmets. In the late 1940s, hard shell helmets were introduced in military forces around the world and the “bone dome,” as the fighter pilot helmet was often called, soon became standard issued equipment for the jet fighter pilot.
Yet, while the general form of early fighter pilot helmets and current helmets may be similar, the functions are indeed very different. Current fighter pilot helmets now do more than provide protection; they can actually help a pilot become a better pilot. Rather than simply helping the pilot avoid injury or death in the event of an ejection or crash, modern helmets can help the pilot avoid situations that would result in possible injury or death.
Today’s fighter pilot helmet may now include in-helmet displays that allow a pilot to monitor the plane’s functions without having to look at the aircraft’s instrument panel. In the supersonic world that a fighter pilot works in, a plane can travel thousands of feet in the amount of time it takes to look at the instrument panel. In air combat, the difference between life and death is often measured in mere seconds.
There are also helmets that not only allow a pilot to monitor the operations of the aircraft, but also enable the pilot to track, lock on to and fire on targets simply by looking at the target. A new helmet designed to work in conjunction with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in the United States has taken helmet technology to a new level. The aircraft was designed to include infrared sensors in key areas of the fighter, which interfaces with the pilot's helmet.