A HISTORY OF PRESSURE SUITS

pressure-suited pilot group

The Dragon Lady has many distinctive features – a slender, black-painted design; state-of-the-art sensors; ‘pogo’ wheels for balance on the ground; a very high-altitude cruise, and so on. But when you get close to a U-2 being prepared for flight, one feature stands out. The pilot in his bright yellow pressure suit (previously orange, above).

To the uninitiated, it is similar to the “space suits” worn by astronauts. They probably don’t realize that the history of pressure suits began some thirty years before the first humans ventured into space. They also may not realize that the U-2 program has been central to the development of pressure suits for high altitude flight.

This story is well told within a most comprehensive book. “Dressing For Altitude: US Aviation Pressure Suits – Wiley Post to Space Shuttle” was sponsored by NASA and written by Dennis Jenkins. In 526 richly-illustrated pages, the physiology is explained, the ever-more demanding requirements are related, and the development path is described in fascinating detail.

pilot in pressure suit at The Ranch

A pilot is fitted with the partial pressure suit at The Ranch (aka Groom Lake) in 1956

As far as I can tell, every single American suit is described within these pages. From the early designs that protected pioneer aviators and balloonists; through the partial pressure suits for the first X-planes, early postwar fighters and bombers, and the original U-2s; to the full pressure suits first used prominently in the X-15, and from 1967 in the U-2R. There is also a section on acceleration protection i.e. anti-G suits, development of which preceded most of the pressure suits.    

suits and boots at Beale PSDhelmets at Beale PSD

Boots, suits and helmets in PSD at Beale

It has been my privilege to meet three long-serving specialists who have stamped their authority on this unique business. Joe Ruseckas, who did the detailed design work on the original U-2 partial pressure suit at the David Clark Company (DCC) in 1955. Joe spent his working life at DCC and led the development of  numerous advances. Tom Bowen, known to generations of U-2 pilots thanks to his long tenure as the head of the Physiological Support Division (PSD) at Beale AFB, preceded by field support duty with the CIA detachments. And Jack Bassick, who started in field service with DCC, which has been the sole provider of pressure suits to the U-2 program throughout. Jack served the company for 45 years, and is still a director.

I must thank Jack for sending me a copy of this magnificent book. Although money cannot buy it, you can download a pdf version without charge from the NASA website.  

Preflight pressure-testing at Fairford

pilot in pressure suit test Fairford 2020

   

5 thoughts on “A HISTORY OF PRESSURE SUITS

  1. Thanks for the cue, Chris! I just finished reviewing Chris Petty’s recently-published history of the rocket plane programs for Air & Space Power Journal, so this will make perfect follow-on reading!

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  2. Chris, you do a bang up job on the detail of these missions and as a member of the PSD fraternity I appreciate your work!

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    • Andy!
      If you don’t have my email, send yours to Chris, and he will forward it to me.
      If you do have it, drop me a note.

      I’d post it here but don’t want the whole world to see it.

      Huggy

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  3. Dear Chris, Many thanks for this!!! I have just a couple of comments. First, those of us whose lives were saved by a timely suit inflation after a flameout at high altitude will always have a “special admiration” for the PSD folks. Second, I remember being very thankful that I WAS wearing those thick pressure gloves because after only a few minutes in that cold, unpressurized cockpit, my hands felt nearly like numb “clubs” from the cold. (Some of my squadron mates admitted to me they would not use those pressure gloves). Finally, I never became accustomed to the partial pressure helmet lining…the supposedly soft “harness” that was in direct contact with my head…that always gave me uncomfortable “hot spots.”

    Chris, we always look forward to your invaluable contributions. All the best to you!!! Duke

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  4. Chris,

    Another great connection with history. Well done!

    I personally find the old 1031 suit to be superior in terms of comfort than the current 1034. Removing all of the padding from the torso harness was a big mistake, and I hope David Clark fixes it on the next change.

    Blue skies,

    Huggy

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