What is a Flight Suit?

Mike Howells

A flight suit is an article of clothing specially designed to withstand the rigors and demands of flight. These garments are used by military and civilian aviators as well as astronauts. While, historically, flight suits consisted of multiple pieces, modern designs are typically made as one-piece jumpsuits or coveralls.

Modern flight suits enable pilots to survive high G forces.
Modern flight suits enable pilots to survive high G forces.

Purpose-designed flight suits date back to World War I, as open cockpit flight demanded warm, padded apparel that could keep pilots comfortable in a wide range of conditions. The most common World War I-era flight suit was a two-piece leather design. By World War II, bomber and fighter planes could reach altitudes of more than 30,000 feet (9,144 m), but were not pressurized. Electrically-heated flight suits were introduced to keep bomber crews and pilots warm. Later, the development of pressurized cabins meant cabin crews no longer needed to be so protected from the elements, and the flight suit evolved to become less bulky and more form-fitting.

Pilots with an open cockpit often wore bomber jackets over their flight suit for additional warmth.
Pilots with an open cockpit often wore bomber jackets over their flight suit for additional warmth.

As jet engines were introduced onto civilian and military aircraft, the increased speeds and greater potential dangers associated with fires led to the development of fire-retardant flight suits. In addition, a special type of flight suit, known as the G-Suit, was introduced to help pilots maintain consciousness during extreme maneuvers. These worked by compressing the body and making it more difficult for fainting, or blackouts, to occur. The most complex flight suits are fully pressurized and are used by pilots who fly aircraft on the edge of space.

Astronauts must wear special suits during launches and when in space.
Astronauts must wear special suits during launches and when in space.

Astronauts, who are subjected to even greater extremes than other aviators, wear custom-fitted flight suits, known as launch-and-entry suits, during the initial launch into space. Each suit is supplied with a number of safety features, including a supplemental oxygen supply, emergency parachute, life raft, water supply, and homing beacon. During normal operation, once out in space, modern astronauts typically wear light cotton apparel rather than a flight suit.

Because bombers can reach very high altitudes, flight suits are often worn by their crews.
Because bombers can reach very high altitudes, flight suits are often worn by their crews.

The most common modern flight suits are made out of either a lightweight nylon-based material, known as NOMEX®, that is highly durable and flexible; or a blended cotton and polyester material. Typically these garments feature a number of zippered closures to prevent stored articles from falling out in flight. While civilian and commercial airplane pilots do not commonly wear flight suits, they are fairly standard among helicopter pilots. In the United States, Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots all wear the same model flight suit, designated as CWU-27/P by these military branches.

Navy jet pilots wear G-suits.
Navy jet pilots wear G-suits.
Pilots who fly aircraft that operate at extremely high altitudes, such as the U-2, wear flight suits that are similar to those worn by astronauts.
Pilots who fly aircraft that operate at extremely high altitudes, such as the U-2, wear flight suits that are similar to those worn by astronauts.

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Discussion Comments

Mor

The one exception to that is the flight suit used by astronauts. Although the idea of an astronaut is really sexy, I'm pretty sure very few people would describe the uniform as sexy. It looks more like they are the marshmallow man!

But those suits are, of course, extremely iconic and it's not like they have any shortage of volunteers for space missions. Some of the best photos taken in space were of the earth or the moon reflected in the helmet of someone wearing a space suit.

I just wish more money was being pushed into the space program, so that we could get more people out there in those NASA flight suits.

I wonder if those flight suits will be for sale as memorabilia one of these days. It wouldn't surprise me, that's for sure.

umbra21

Flight suits always make me think of those romantic pilot movies that were popular for a while, like Top Gun. Somehow they managed to make even those bulky suits look sexy.

I guess now they really need to think about that as much as they can though.

Sad as it is to say, even the military has to remember PR and try to keep the uniforms looking nice as well as functional. It helps with their recruitment rates, I'd imagine!

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