American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Personal Equipment

Special Requirements of the Army Air Forces

  • Feature Article
  • Author: Bradford Washburn
  • Climb Year: N/A
  • Publication Year: 1946

DURING the recent war, the fliers of the Army Air Forces constantly performed routine combat and reconnaissance missions which forced them to face the most severe climatic extremes ever encountered by man.

It was not unusual for our fliers, whether based in England or in China, in summer or in winter, to run into arctic conditions less than an hour after takeoff. It became commonplace for aircrews who had breakfasted in Newfoundland or Greenland to eat supper in Italy or Africa.

Never before in military history have articles of personal equipment played so vital a part in actual combat. While the Aircraft and Armament Laboratories at Wright Field equipped our men with the best airplanes and firepower that American ingenuity and resourcefulness could produce, it was the responsibility of the Personal Equipment Laboratory to outfit our aircrews with clothing and a host of other articles that would enable them to operate this equipment with the greatest possible security, efficiency and comfort.

Personal equipment consists basically of flying clothing, parachutes and emergency and survival equipment. All of this materiel was produced to meet the specialized requirements of the Air Forces. It was distributed by the Air Service Command and issued by Air Corps Supply units at bases all over the world. This equipment was considered as supplementary to the regular Quartermaster basic items which were issued to all personnel in the army, regardless of what branch of the service they were in.

The development of AAF personal equipment was kept separate throughout the war because General Arnold and the Air Staff did not wish the unique requirements of their 250,000 fliers to be subordinated in any way to the general requirements of a ground army of several million men. This policy was essentially sound, as it resulted in the development of a large number of remarkable items many of which widely differed in design from regular Quartermaster issue. Unfortunately, however, it also resulted in almost constant friction between the QMC and the AAF with regard to the responsibility for borderline items, such as footgear, headgear, and camping equipment, used by both air and ground troops. The purpose of this article is to call the reader’s attention to a number of the truly special requirements of the AAF which led to the need for a separate research and development agency.

Three things keep you warm on the trail: activity, clothing and shelter. The flier can rely on only one of these. The greatest overall difference between Air Force and Ground Force requirements is in the simple, but frequently unappreciated, fact that the flier does his fighting sitting still. The great problem in designing clothing for the Army Ground Forces was in achieving the proper balance between insulation and ventilation—especially in providing simple means for body heat, created by exercise, to be carried away without condensing in the clothing.

A second profound difference in Air Force requirements resulted from the speed with which our fliers passed from one climatic extreme to another. In the China-Burma-India theater our fighter pilots frequently climbed through a range of over 100°F. between ground and combat altitude in a quarter of an hour. Although the use of the zipper was considered inadvisable in most QMC clothing, it was absolutely essential to the AAF in order to achieve adequate, speedy ventilation in flying clothing at ground level, followed by snug, leakproof fit at altitude.

During the winter and spring of 1943 heavy bombardment crews of the 8th Air Force repeatedly faced missions of several hours duration at temperatures considerably colder than -40°F. On several occasions temperatures of between -60° and -70° were encountered. For a while during this crucial stage of the war the frostbite casualties of the 8th Air Force topped all other combined casualties. In the old-type B-24 and B-17 the waist-gunners faced these temperatures opposite open waist-ports through which they operated their guns in a swirling blast of 200 miles of wind. The ball-turret and tail gunners sat almost motionless in their cramped positions for hours on end.

Two different developments caused the rapid decrease of these terrible casualties : the installation of fixed plexi glass “blisters” to cover the open waist-ports, and the improvement of the electric flying suit.

Endless flights and combat experience taught us that if you sit stock still for 2 or 3 hours, the only purely insulative clothing that will keep you comfortable at -40° is so bulky that it seriously hampers your duties at your gun, your bombsight or your map. And it was not just freezing that we were concerned with. It was found that a man who is too warm and comfortable gets dangerously lax and sloppy aloft in combat—the danger signal in the other direction comes long before you actually begin to freeze your fingers. You cannot freeze the small of your back or your thighs, but you can think a great deal about them. Even a little discomfort distracts you. For their safety and efficiency in aerial combat our men had to be able to put 100% of their thoughts on the job. Every possible source of distraction had to be eliminated or minimized.

To give a motionless man adequate protection from a temperature of 60° below zero, it would be necessary to encase him all over in about a foot of insulative clothing. The only alternative to this impossible extreme is to provide auxiliary heat of some sort.

Electrical clothing, except for possible use in vehicles, has to date been considered entirely impractical by the Ground Forces. Although the F-l electrical suit was far from satisfactory and even the final F-3 model was not perfect by any means, it is fair to state that the high altitude heavy bombing of Europe could not possibly have succeeded if our fliers had been equipped with conventional unheated clothing.

The principle of layering was almost as important in flying clothing as on the ground. We struggled to try to get as much insulation as possible into light flexible garments and at the same time have them versatile. Versatility is the most important single feature in the development of all army equipment. A flying jacket which could also be used on the ground saved producing and issuing and storing one extra article. Furthermore, in combat when you are in the air, you never know when you may be shot down with nothing but flying clothing to wear on the ground.

This was one of the main reasons for designing our final models of electric flying suits so that they were a sort of middle-layer garment: these F-3 suits were worn over the regular QM clothing which was best adapted to the area over which one flew; next came the light electrical suit with its wiring sandwiched between 2 layers of slippery nylon; lastly, the outer layer was an intermediate- weight flying suit of tough cotton twill with a soft alpaca lining and mouton collar. One rarely took off with all this clothing on at once, unless it was very cold on the ground. Usually the trousers and jacket of the outer intermediate suit were left unzipped until the aircraft had climbed to a considerable altitude. Electrical heat was turned slowly up as the plane climbed, and zippers were closed only when full insulation was finally needed. Pilot and co-pilot frequently needed much less protection than other members of the crew.

The “escape” feature of flying clothing was vital. Until 1945 the only cold weather flying shoe available in large quantities was the familiar, zippered, A-6 fleece-lined boot. It was absolutely impossible to walk on the ground in these shoes for any distance. They were designed to go over officers’ dress shoes and not over standard G.I. marching boots. If you wore low shoes and were forced down in combat you were in a serious jam. If you were flying high, the low shoes were not warm enough inside the fleece- lined boots, so our men started wearing several pairs of heavy socks and no shoes at all inside the boots; frequently they wore electric slippers, heavy socks and then the big boot. They still could not walk when they were forced down. In the Arctic we usually used mukluks, which were satisfactory in the air and on the ground alike, but even a mukluk is not satisfactory protection for your feet if you have to sit almost motionless at 40° below zero for several hours. However, over Germany you needed mukluks aloft and G.I. shoes on the ground. Many of our aircrews wore the sock-filled flying boots on their feet, but always carried their G.I. shoes tied to their parachute harness, for use on the ground if they had to bail out. This problem was finally solved by redesigning the fleece boot to go over a G.I. shoe, and by then making a feather-weight electric slipper which went over the shoe but inside the big boot. If you were forced down, you could kick off your clumsy boots and electric slippers and get away in walking footgear adapted to the country over which you were operating.

Gunfire and flak injuries often played terrible havoc with the old F-l electric suit which was wired in series, like the old- fashioned Christmas-tree lights, with only 2 circuits: a single broken wire, or a lost glove or shoe, and half the suit went out of operation. The final suits in 1945 were wired with 13 parallel circuits. A man could be terribly shot up before the suit really failed him.

The older electric suits were usually used alone with a minimum of clothing worn below and over them. You were helpless if you got shot down in this outfit. If your current failed you aloft, you were congealed with cold in no time. With the F-3 type of suit worn over practical QM clothing and under a light but warm flying suit, you were safe on the ground in any but the most extreme climates. If your current failed, you had enough layers of insulative clothing to get you by for a surprisingly long time before uncontrollable shivering started.

I have dwelt a long time on the electrical suit because it is a perfect example of a vitally important and highly specialized need of the Air Forces. The Canadians were the first to realize that flying clothing should be designed to fit a seated man and not an officer at attention—that legs and arms must be curved, that pockets should be placed so as to be useful to all the crew of the aircraft and not just the pilot—that instant removal of flying clothing is critically important after you have parachuted into the water! The United Nations owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Air Commodore Ryan, Group Captain Hall and Wing Commander Webb, whose practical research for the RCAF called the attention of the world to the real problems of clothing aircrews and laid a foundation for a great part of our progress in other countries.

U. S. Army flying clothing research was carried out with the assistance and advice of the Aero-Medical Laboratory at Wright Field and the experts of the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory. The aircraft experts were constantly designing planes that far surpassed our personnel's capacity to fly them. The Personal Equipment and Aero-Medical Laboratories had to cooperate to try to keep the pilot abreast of his plane.

Clothing development was not by any means restricted to meeting cold-weather requirements. In fact, some of our most serious problems dealt with heat, ventilation, mosquito-proofing of fabric, and the production of waterproof exposure suits for aircrews operating over vast bodies of water.

In these few pages I have not time to discuss the parachute program in detail. The Personal Equipment Laboratory inherited the development of parachutes as well as rescue and survival equipment during a reorganization which took place in the spring of 1944. The difficulties of maintaining production on several different types of personnel and cargo parachutes made of nylon, cotton and rayon, to be used over both land and sea were terrific and unending. These were further complicated with the great increase in the speed and ceiling of aircraft and the extreme difficulties of bailing out at over 35,000 ft. at speeds of 400 and 500 miles per hour.

The production of cargo parachutes was, of course, enormous during the war, and the technique of aerial delivery which was in its infancy in 1941 became one of the important factors in modern military science by 1945. It is interesting to note that a good proportion of our pre-war experience in aerial delivery had been gained on expeditions of various members of the American Alpine Club.

The AAF distributed a huge number of items classified under the general title of Emergency Rescue Equipment. These articles, usually packed in kits, were carried in aircraft all over the world in anticipation of forced landings. Many of these kits were designed to be hitched to your parachute in case of bailout. They often took the versatile form of a back-pad or seat-pad which was snapped to your parachute harness and jammed full of small articles for use when you reached the ground. The fighter pilot operating over large bodies of water actually had an entire one-man life-raft as his seat and a large number of emergency items in his back-pad, both of which followed him overboard if he bailed out. Other kits were strapped next to emergency exits and had small parachutes attached to them so that they could be tossed to unlucky crews in the squadron who might be down in distress. The life rafts, of course, in final models included in the B-29’s, were ejected and automatically inflated almost the instant a plane hit the water.

A large number of the items that went into these kits were of QM design. Very few of the kits were ever used exactly as packed and issued, because varying requirements all over the world made it more practical in the local air forces to rearrange the contents to suit their own specific needs.

An interesting example of a specialized and important AAF requirement which one would think overlapped the needs of the ground forces was the need for an Arctic emergency tent. This tent was needed by small AAF rescue parties which had to go to the scene of a crash and evacuate survivors on the ground. These tents were to be used in extreme cold, so no waterproofing or repellency treatment could be used. They had to be double-walled to increase warmth and minimize frosting of the interior. They had to be extremely light for foot trail travel, even though an AAF item. They were expendable and could be thrown away after from one to three weeks use; hence the material could be much lighter than that used in most military tents. Furthermore, combat restrictions as to height and color imposed by the ground forces could be dispensed with, as the Air Forces wanted tents to be particularly visible both from the ground and from the air to facilitate locating them at all times. Chrome yellow orange was the prescribed color. This tent was a highly specialized and unique requirement of the AAF, one which in several features was the exact opposite of basic QM rules of design and camouflage.

Sleeping bags, like tents, were a continual source of disagreement between AAF and QM. Not once did the Air Forces compromise on three basic requirements for sleeping bags, requirements which probably should be examined closely by the Quartermaster Corps.

AAF sleeping bags must zip across the bottom and up one side, so that wounded personnel can easily be put in and taken out of the bag, and so that wounds are easily accessible at all times without disturbing the patient.

For the purpose of ventilation in warmer weather, occasional use as a blanket and general cleanliness, all sleeping bags must be designed so that they can be opened out entirely to form a single flat surface.

Sleeping bags for AAF use (where they are rarely carried on the back) need not be quite so restricted as the QMC “mummy-case” bag. The AAF bag must be as simple and light as reasonable, but it is essentially a practical form of bedding rather than an article of featherweight camping equipment. The few ounces of material and cubic inches of space saved by an extreme mummy- case taper may mean much to the infantryman, but are of no consequence in the payload of a B-l7 or a B-29. Within reasonable limits U. S. aircrews were to be provided the most comfortable and practical sleeping equipment that available conditions of transport permitted.

No Arctic footgear yet devised by the QM has met AAF requirements. Air Force mechanics and line-crews must stand still for long periods of time on step-ladders, dollys, scaffolds and wings. Even in extreme sub-zero weather their feet are constantly in oil, gasoline and puddles of water* around the aircraft upon which they have to work outdoors with little or no protection. Although QM dry-tanned mukluks and felt boots are splendid in their special spheres of usefulness, they simply do not fill the bill under these unusual conditions. For this reason the AAF developed a canvas mukluk wth stippled rubber sole (to cling to slippery wings) and waterproof rubber “foxing'’ running one inch up the sides, so that men could work in grease, oil and water in comparative comfort and safety. This use of rubber, although extremely unconventional, seemed to have no effect whatever on the warmth of our mukluks.

The signaling mirror for emergency use of downed airmen in the wilderness or at sea was a simple but marvelous development that saved hundreds of lives. I would never go into Alaska again on a trip involving air support without one of these wonderful little mirrors.

In the early part of the war, as at the office of the Quartermaster General, the greater part of the development work at Wright Field was done by people who knew how to live but not to fight under special conditions all over the world. To keep abreast of constantly changing combat requirements Service Liaison Branches were organized in most of our laboratories, through which a constant flow of information came in from the theaters. The Personal Equipment Laboratory also succeeded in getting a number of men with long combat records brought into the laboratory as fulltime advisors or technicians. These men had actually fought with our equipment and knew exactly what was wrong with it and why. We kept two or three representatives in the theaters almost constantly to write and wire reports back to us. Curiously enough, reliable intelligence on our own equipment was always hard to get: The young men were actually doing the fighting, and although they would wax eloquent in their verbal denunciation of this or that, they rarely dared to write their feelings on paper and send them home through channels!

No one knows better the many shortcomings of our equipment than those of us who had to develop it and push it through production. No Army or Air Force in history ever has had or will have perfect equipment. The rapidly changing requirements of modern war simply cannot be met by a steady, satisfactory flow of production.

The Navy, the Army and the Air Forces were all striving separately to meet their own special needs Although extraordinary teamwork was displayed at times, it is still something of a mystery why these efforts could not have been far more closely coordinated. However, one fact is certain: although there is scarcely a man in any branch of our services who does not feel that some of his equipment was far from perfect, you will not find one in ten thousand who would prefer to renounce all of his American food and equipment in exchange for that issued by any other of the warring powers. The United States equipped its fighting men better than any other country in the world.

Let us hope that during the months that lie ahead, legislation will be enacted to assure less waste and a higher degree of coordination between our various services, so that specialized needs like those that have just been described can be met more rapidly and less wastefully in the future than they have been in the past.

* The hot-air heaters used by the AAF were so powerful that the ice and snow around them always melted into large puddles which could not be avoided by ground crews servicing the planes.

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