Kit Up!

Air Force Collecting Feedback to Design Better-Fitting Flight Suits

Lt. Col. Christine Mau, the 33rd Operations Group deputy commander, puts on her helmet before taking her first flight in the F-35A Lightning II at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., on May 5, 2015. Mau, who previously flew F-15E Strike Eagles, made history as the first female F-35 pilot in the program. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Marleah Robertson)
Lt. Col. Christine Mau, the 33rd Operations Group deputy commander, puts on her helmet before taking her first flight in the F-35A Lightning II at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., on May 5, 2015. Mau, who previously flew F-15E Strike Eagles, made history as the first female F-35 pilot in the program. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Marleah Robertson)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Airmen of all shapes and sizes are likely to see improved flight suits as the U.S. Air Force gathers feedback from leaders and service members to better equip and dress its force, the service's top general said this week.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said a team of airmen is reviewing not only flight suits, but all the gear needed to fly for hours on end.

"We've put together a team; it's a combination of Air Force Materiel Command and Air Combat Command to look at [this], and it's beyond uniforms," he told Military.com on Wednesday at the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber conference. "It's uniforms, it's gear, it's kit. It's not only what you place where in terms of uniforms, but it's also what you put atop that uniform. It's the vests, it's the helmets, it's the boots, it's the firearms."

The team expects to provide preliminary recommendations to Goldfein "in early October," spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said.

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"Those recommendations will then be prioritized and submitted for funding consideration," she said.

Other major commands are likely to join the discussion, she added.

But changes to flight suits and associated gear are already taking shape across the force, Col. Brady Hauboldt, program executive officer for Agile Combat Support at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, said Thursday in a statement.

"Over the past year, during numerous customer support visits and engagements with airmen, we received feedback from female aircrew members about concerns about the fit, performance, and availability [of] female aircrew flight equipment," he said.

For flight suits specifically, proper fit and size range was lacking for female aircrew members.

"In response, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center's Human System Program Office identified an existing, qualified solution, which expands the size ranges to better fit female aircrew," Hauboldt said.

The program office acquired an initial inventory of "a wide array of sizes" through the Defense Logistics Agency, Hauboldt said, adding that sample sizes were delivered to all Air Education and Training Command bases for new airmen to try and units were notified the flight suits were available for order.

"The effort has been so successful that we noted initial back orders in high-demand sizes, which have since been resolved with DLA," he said. "As of August 2018, DLA had over 6,000 flight suits on hand (or due in) to properly equip our female aircrew."

The service also touted the success of changing its bladder relief system for pilots from "piddle packs," or baggies lined with absorbent sponges, to the Aircrew Mission Extender Device, known as AMXDMax.

"We heard firsthand from female aircrew about challenges with bladder relief and rapidly acquired and delivered a solution," Hauboldt said.

The system was certified as "safe to fly" in 2009 and is also used by the Navy and Army, according to manufacturer Omni Medical Systems.

AMXDMax "is a hand-carried battery-powered pump to flow urine to a reusable collection bag (used with special underwear/pads) without having to unstrap from the aircraft seat," Hauboldt said. The Air Force has procured and delivered 356 AMXD kits to "equip all female aviators flying on ejection seat aircraft."

He did not specify whether they differ from the male AMXDMax kits, but said the Air Force "will order 1,619 additional AMXDs next week to supplement the inventory."

Better Equipment for All

Goldfein said that women have had to adjust to wearing suits and equipment designed to fit men, a problem he has highlighted for months while talking to airmen at bases around the globe. Improved, form-fitting uniforms have been a goal for Goldfein, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth O. Wright, chief master sergeant of the Air Force.

The Army's Operational Camouflage Pattern debuts Oct. 1 as the Air Force's new combat uniform. But leaders have sought better uniforms for airmen operating in all spectrums of conflict. The Airman Battle Uniform, first issued to new recruits in 2007, drew criticism for its strange fit. Airmen also criticized the ABU because they were required to add it to their wardrobe but didn't use it as much as other uniforms.

"The focus has been, 'How do we make it easier [and] what works for airmen,' " Wilson said of the OCP on May 4. The uniform must be right "for both men and women. From a cost perspective, but also from a functional perspective."

It's about having "all of our equipment for all of our airmen sized for them, that fits them, that works in harsh environments … to include long periods of time of wearing that gear," Goldfein said Wednesday. "We're flying missions over places like Syria and others where it's nine, 10 or even 11 hours in a cockpit. That doesn't allow you to move. And if you have ill-fitting gear for that period of time, it's going to affect how you do the mission.

"It's not a destination," he said. "It's a journey we're on. I'm not going to ever get comfortable that we have this exactly right and stop. I don't expect to stand this team down anytime soon because as more technology and more equipment comes through, we've got to make sure that's upfront and part of the process early in the designs so we're not having to modify later."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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