Dogfight: Flight Suits

February 1, 2013

dogfightThere’s a new dog in this fight: Senior Editor Ian J. Twombly—a considerably younger dog—debates with Senior Editor Dave Hirschman over the merits, or demerits, of a flight suit. Which one of these pilots is the underdog? We welcome your thoughts on our latest “Dogfight.”

Not a fashion statement

Flight suits are just plain useful
By Dave Hirschman

Nomex flight suits are designed for a specific purpose, refined by decades of improvement, enhance pilot comfort and safety, and are widely available at rock-bottom prices. Yet some fellow pilots—our own self-appointed airport fashion police—insist that we should never wear them because the garments are uncool, we are unworthy, or both. If I wanted current apparel advice, I’d ask my 16-year-old daughter.

But I don’t. So I keep a Nomex flight suit in an airport locker, and it’s come in handy many times for semi-spontaneous before- or after-work flights and saved my real clothes from oil, grease, hydraulic fluid, and sweat stains.

Flight suits are durable, built to exacting standards, and perfectly evolved for their unique environment. They fit without binding in seatbelt or parachute harnesses; pockets are the right sizes and reachable in flight; they’re made from durable, flame-resistant material; and they stand up to heat and cold.

My surplus flight suit is just right for confined sport-airplane cockpits. Wrist bands close tightly so they don’t snag on canopy frames or throttle quadrants, long sleeves provide sun protection, and the short collar keeps shoulder straps from digging into my neck. It also provides a small but meaningful amount of fire protection. On long cross-countries, the main zipper opens from the bottom, so I can use a relief tube without undressing. (Try that in jeans and a belt.)

But you won’t find me wearing a flight suit at a bar, restaurant, or Halloween party. A flight suit isn’t a fashion accessory. It’s a tool, like a headset or a parachute, meant for use in aircraft. There’s also an important point to be made here against “stolen valor”—I’m a civilian pilot and would never want to be mistaken for a military flier. But as a taxpayer, I’ve done my bit to help fund the design and development of flight suits, and I see no reason to forgo their benefits.

Some accuse flight-suit wearers of being caught up in Top Gun fantasies. That’s drivel. We’re simply using the best available tool for the job it was meant to perform, and anyone who would read more than that into a practical garment choice has got their own delusions.

P.S. On cold days, I sometimes fly in quilted coveralls—yet, to my knowledge, no dairy farmers or diesel mechanics think I’m trying to impersonate them, and none has taken offense.

Email dave.hirschman@aopa.org.

Don’t be ‘That Guy’

Flight suits aren’t for weekend pilots
By Ian J. Twombly

Let’s establish right off the bat the four types of pilots for whom it is acceptable to wear a flight suit—active military flight crew, Reno Air Race and airshow pilots, certain government and associated contractors, and factory test pilots. If you are sitting at home reading this right now in your “bag” (because I know that’s what you call it), read carefully. Wearing a flight suit outside the course of duty for any of those four activities puts you firmly in the category of being That Guy. That Guy is the Ferrari owner who wears Ferrari-logoed gear every time he drives, the scuba diver who carries the huge knife on a 20-foot reef dive, and the weekend skier who wears the spandex race suit.

I’ve read the arguments for looking spiffy in a drab green flight suit. A proper Nomex suit is a good, fire-resistant material, they say. You know how many fires on average there are a year on GA airplanes? Three, and only one of those causes injury. The flight suiters have a much better chance of getting struck by lightning on the golf course—but I bet they don’t wear suits of rubber on the links.

Sometimes there’s an argument made for the suit’s ability to both keep the pilot clean and keep clothing out of the way of the aircraft’s critical systems. If this is a problem, you’re either flying an airplane that’s too small for you, or you wear way too many gold chains. Buy a $5 shirt at Wal-Mart that you use just for flying, and put on some jeans like the rest of us.

As far as bunching and chafing under a parachute goes, people in the skydiving community often jump naked as a rite of passage. If they can intentionally jump in a birthday suit, you surely can do without a flight suit.

By wearing a flight suit, you are making a statement. It’s not enough that your wallet holds a pilot certificate. You must announce to the world that you are a modern-day Maverick, ready to buzz the tower at a moment’s notice.

Flying in GA aircraft is, for most of us, a recreational pursuit. We’re not on carrier decks or slogging through the jungle after being shot down. We practice our crosswind landings at the airport, and fly in pursuit of the perfect $100 hamburger—neither of which happens at Mach 2 with your hair on fire.

Email ian.twombly@aopa.org.

Topics Pilots, Gear