Thursday, March 27, 2008

WW II military technology: electrically heated flyers’ jacket

Shown at right, the silky, dark olive jacket from World War II illustrates the ingenuity of military innovation playing out even today in space-age and consumer technology.

Among historical artifacts found at the old Cleveland County, N. C., courthouse building, the jacket is labeled as property of the U. S. Air Force, made by General Electric, and a part of the F-3 electrically-heated suit issued to pilots and their crew members. Laced throughout are wires such as might now be found in heating pads and electric blankets. A plug extends from the bottom front to connect to similarly wired trousers, which connected to wired shoe inserts.

This jacket was donated to the former historical museum in 1982 along with many other items by Ruth Spangler. Its specific history is not immediately known. (If you know about this or other such flight jackets, we'd love to hear from you.) However, the role of the electrically heated suit is well documented in the history of U. S. units flying fabled planes such as the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator in strategic bombing of European industrial and military targets. (See military history and research.

The heated suits were developed in response to a severe problem: frostbite in the frigid winter skies at the 25,000-30,000 feet optimum for heavy bombers. Until the military figured out how to deal with the cold, more flight crewmen were suffering frostbite than were being wounded by enemy gunfire.

The F-3 outerwear suit evolved from earlier versions worn as underwear and not as satisfactory. An earlier suit was wired in series, and if one wire failed, the entire suit did. And breakage of fine wires through wear and tear was common.

As one flyer wrote: “…the electric suits had ‘hot spots’ in them. After a while they would burn under the armpits and behind the knees and elbows and they had to be turned off until those areas cooled. And by the time they cooled the rest of you was shivering. So you would fly missions in an electric suit turning it on and off and on and off all the way out and back.”

The F-3 suit was wired in parallel to prevent the entire suit from failing if one wire broke, and that one modification is said to have improved the suit’s reliability more than 75 percent.

Contributor: Pat Poston

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