Frightful Early Flight Gear

Posted on Mon, October 31, 2016
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Still seeking Halloween inspiration? We’re drawing spooky inspiration from our archives. These photos document early attempts at protecting aviators and their support crews. The results, while practical, were often quite creepy. 

  • Image of fire rescue crew

    No, this is not a failed Stay Puft Marshmallow Man costume. It’s fireproof protective gear worn by crash rescue crews during World War II. Crews were always on high alert due to the state of many American bombers upon returning from battle.

  • Image of Twin combat team

    Looking like a cross between gremlins and the denizens of the Planet of the Apes, these B-17 crewmen model the latest in high altitude fashion. They are missing one crucial accessory – the fur lined gloves that would have prevented frostbite.

  • Image of Winterized Gunner

    The original caption for this archival photo beat us to the punch. “Looking like a man from Mars, this Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress gunner shows what the well-dressed combat man wears as he participated in attacks on German targets.” Our Martian-man, in his warm protective clothing, is well prepared for the plunging temperatures he’d face, at time 67 degrees below zero.

  • Member of the 390th Bomb Group, modeling a frostbite mask

    An anteater? A villainous birdman? No matter, this is not a character I’d like to encounter in the night. But this member of the 390th Bomb Group is modeling a frostbite mask at the 8th Air Force base in England on November 1943.

    The human body does not function well at the extremes of altitudes above 4.5 kilometers (15,000 feet). As uncomfortable as it looks, the gear required to breath and live in temperatures below -40 degrees Fahrenheit, transformed the aircrew into frightening forms.

  • US Army Air Service, Lt. John A. Macready

    Not the menacing zoo-escapee he appears to be, Lt. John A. Macready was one of the Army’s best test pilots in the early twenties. He made the first nonstop coast-to-coast flight.

  •  Chief Test Pilot of the US Army Air Service Engineering Laboratory

    It’s hard to look like one of the Army’s top aviators when it looks like you’re sporting a clown nose, but this face mask and oxygen tube allowed Rudolph Schroeder to reach over 9.1 kilometers (30,000 feet) by 1920.

  • Image of an experimental oxygen mask

    The Ninja Turtles know all too well what can go wrong when innocent animals come in contact with radioactive material. Now this once plucky duck knows—his love for pizza has become undeniable.That’s one explanation for this photo. Another: What you actually see is an experimental oxygen mask mounted on a mannequin; the bellows at the front open.

  • Pilots wearing state of the art in high altitude reconnaissance equipment

    No, it’s not the makings of an intergalactic buddy-cop movie, but the state of the art in high altitude reconnaissance equipment in 1929. Today, U-2 pilots still wear astronaut-style pressure suits to be able to survive at altitude. Ninety years ago, the equipment still had a long way to go.

  • Pilot wearing electrically heated goggles

    Looking like an out-of-place amphibian, this image shows just how unforgiving the aerial environment was as planes were pushing higher than 9.1 kilometers (30,000 feet). The goggles shown in this photograph were even electrically heated.

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