F-35 Pilots Dress For Chemical and Biological Warfare For The First Time

There is nothing easy or comfortable about fighting in a weapons of mass destruction environment, and F-35 pilots are getting that ability with this new getup. 

USAF

It has taken testers and industry a decade to come up with a flight suit configuration that can keep F-35 pilots alive in biological and chemical warfare environments, and just last week the ensemble flew for the first time. 

In a press release, the USAF detailed the different pieces of the modified getup:

“The chemical/biological ensemble consists of a special CB suit, a Joint Service Aircrew Mask used for the F-35, a pilot-mounted CB air filter, CB socks and gloves double taped at the wrists. The ensemble also features a filtered air blower that protects the pilot from CB contamination while walking to the jet. It provides both breathing air and demist air, which goes to the pilot’s mask and goggles. All components of the CB ensemble are in addition to the pilot’s sleeved flight jacket and G suit… The ensemble also includes a communication device so the pilot can speak to people while wearing the ensemble with helmet and mask.”

Darren Cole, the 461st Flight Test Human Systems Integration Lead, described an interesting byproduct of the suit’s communication system in that same release:

“It is a conversational communication unit, which is a box that integrates with the communication system so that when he speaks into his mask it lets people hear the pilot talk… it makes him sound like Darth Vader.”

To test the suit, an F-35B from MCAS Yuma was borrowed, and one of the 461st FLTS pilots, once fully outfitted with all the gear, went about their normal pre-flight and startup operations in the presence of an airborne agent that simulates biological and chemical ones but does not have their same deadly effects. All the while the test team was monitoring their suits for infiltration by the agent. Cole states:

“The first pilot stepped to a clean jet in the CB ensemble and we contaminated it using a simulated agent. The engine run pulls in the simulant so we need to make sure the air is filtered before it gets to the pilot. First, the air goes through the (On-Board Oxygen Generation System) and then the pilot-mounted CB filter to remove any remaining contaminants. There is another filtered air supply blower that provides cooling and demist air to the pilot’s hood and goggles. We also used three air sampling devices to be sure all the air provided to the pilot was clean.”

Then a second pilot in the same outfit stepped to the jet to test the suit in a known “dirty” environment—one where chemical or biological warfare agents are known to have contaminated the cockpit. They then took off on a mission to see not only how the suit would perform but also how the pilot would react to the more cumbersome configuration and how the thermal loads of such a heavy suit would play into a mission. Lauren Gilmore, 461st FLTS engineer describes the scope of the program overall: 

“We purposely chose the Marine [short takeoff, vertical landing] version of the F-35 because the equipment is more complicated and basically has more nooks and crannies for the contaminant to hide in. This aircraft also has full-up mission systems. These tests will demonstrate that the U.S. and partner nations can fly, fight, and win in a CB threat environment and then quickly decontaminate the aircraft and return it to normal operation… We’ve established the procedures to step to the aircraft and hook into it and the order of powering on systems to get the filtered air supply to the pilot… We’ve developed procedures on who needs to help the pilot; how many people are needed to support the logistics trail; how many people are needed to help the pilot don the equipment and how many people will be needed in the Life Support unit. We’ve also noted how many Airmen may be needed to escort the pilot out to the aircraft and recover the aircraft. We helped a lot with the F-35 concept of operations.”

The F-35, with its enhanced man-machine interface, has faced hurdles in the past with cumbersome flight gear—especially with the pilot's much touted helmet mounted display. Combined with the F-35’s ejection seat, the two systems have led to pilot weight restrictions. Ergonomic issues during basic fighter maneuvers (dogfights) have also been noted, along with acuity and night vision issues that are supposed to be fixed with the newest model of helmet. Most recently, the F-35’s helmet has left naval aviators in pain and with fuzzy vision during catapult launches. It will be interesting to see how wearing the chemical and biological warfare protective gear, and especially the eye mask with the helmet, will affect the carrier launch issue. 

Conducting flying operations while in Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) is no easy task, and that is not a challenge specific to the F-35. Ground crews and pilots have to train to adhere to each step of a long set of procedures to fight in conditions up to MOPP4. It is arduous and uncomfortable work that also impacts the fidelity of everyone’s senses and their ability to communicate, which is a big deal when working around air breathing metal pterodactyls and often in nighttime, near “black out” conditions. 

Over in South Korea, US forces train regularly on how to do this due to the very possibility of a sudden weapons of mass destruction attack from the North. The videos below give you just a small glimpse of what getting dressed and undressed for these conditions is like. It definitely slows things down, and one small mistake can be deadly.

Over the years I have asked everyone from crew chiefs to pilots if fighting under such conditions would really be effective or sustainable, and I have received different answers. Complaints of ill-fitting gear, especially for ground support crew, and weak spots in the system are common, as is getting a look as if to say "yeah right." For units like those forward deployed to South Korea, where infrastructure and training has been built up around fighting in a nuclear-biological-chemical (NBC) environment, there is probably a better chance of successfully sustaining operations under these conditions. For other flying units, it seems less clear, although they do have to pass operational readiness inspections on a fairly regular basis to show that they are prepared to do so.

Obviously, if there is a real chance that any of this terrible stuff is present in the air where flight operations are taking place, crews would be much more careful than they would be in training, it is just a matter of human nature. But imagine asking airman to don these suits in the middle east during summer. How long can anyone last on a baking flightline? Ground forces that have to be prepared to fight in similar conditions also face this question. 

Luckily the US has never had to find out if sustaining modern combat aircraft operations in moon suits while being doused with the worst stuff on the planet is feasible or not. In the end, the gear may accomplish its mission without ever being used. If the enemy knows their foes are ready and trained to go about their business under such conditions, why expel the resources testing their preparedness, nor their level of vengeance once the smoke clears? 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com