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A g-suit, or the more accurately named anti-g suit, is a flight suit worn by aviators and astronauts who are subject to high levels of acceleration force (g). It is designed to prevent a black-out and g-LOC (g-induced loss of consciousness) caused by the blood pooling in the lower part of the body when under acceleration, thus depriving the brain of blood. Black-out and g-LOC has caused a number of fatal aircraft accidents.
If blood is allowed to pool in the lower areas of the body, the brain will be deprived of blood, leading to temporary hypoxia. Hypoxia first causes a greyout (a dimming of the vision), also called brownout, followed by tunnel vision and ultimately complete loss of vision 'blackout' followed by g-induced Loss Of Consciousness or 'g-LOC'. The danger of g-LOC to aircraft pilots is magnified because on relaxation of g there is a period of disorientation before full sensation is re-gained. A g-suit does not so much increase the g-threshold, but makes it possible to sustain high g longer without excessive physical fatigue. The resting g-tolerance of a typical person is anywhere from 3-5 g depending on the person. A g-suit will typically add 1 g of tolerance to that limit. Pilots still need to practice the 'g-straining maneuver' that consists of tensing the abdominal muscles in order to tighten blood vessels so as to reduce blood pooling in the lower body. High g is not comfortable, even with a g-suit. In older fighter aircraft, 6 g was considered a high level, but with modern fighters nine or more g can be sustained structurally making the pilot the critical factor in maintaining high maneuverability in close aerial combat.
A g-suit is a special garment and generally takes the form of tightly-fitting trousers, which fit either under or over (depending on the design) the flight suit worn by the aviator or astronaut. The trousers are fitted with inflatable bladders which, when pressurized through a g-sensitive valve in the aircraft or spacecraft, press firmly on the abdomen and legs, thus restricting the draining of blood away from the brain during periods of high acceleration. In addition, in some modern very high-g aircraft, the Anti-g suit effect is augmented by a small amount of pressure applied to the lungs (partial pressure breathing), which also enhances resistance to high G. The effects of anti-g suits and partial pressure breathing are straightforward to replicate in a simulator, although continuous g can only be produced artificially in devices such as centrifuges.
Various designs of g-suit have been developed. They first used water-filled bladders around the lower body and legs. Later designs used air under pressure to inflate the bladders. These g-suits were lighter than the liquid-filled versions and are still in extensive use. However, the Swiss company Life Support Systems AG and the German Autoflug GmbH collaborated to design the new Libelle suit for use with the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft, which reverts to liquid as the medium and improves on performance. The Libelle suit is under consideration for adoption by the United States Air Force.
In 1931 a professor of physiology, Frank Cotton, from the University of Sydney described a new way of determining the center of gravity of the human body. This made it possible to describe the displacement of mass within the body under acceleration.
With the development of higher speed monoplane fighters in the late 1930s, acceleration forces during combat became more severe. As early as 1940 some German aircraft had foot-rests above the rudder pedals so that the pilot's feet and legs could be raised during combat in an attempt to minimize the negative effects of high speed turns. Large rudder deflections were often not necessary during such manoeuvres, but being able to cut inside the opponent's turning radius was.
The Franks g-suit
The first g-suits were developed by a team led by Wilbur R. Franks at the University of Toronto's Banting and Best Medical Institute in 1941. These devices used water filled bladders around the legs and two 'Mk.' versions (or Marks) were developed:
- Franks Mark I suits were used by RAF Hurricane and Spitfire pilots;
- Franks Mark II suits were used by the United States Army Air Forces and Royal Canadian Air Force pilots. U.S. pilots tested them during 1944, but found the water system uncomfortable and were issued an air-inflatable design known as Berger suits from September 1944.
The GPS series 'Berger' Gradient Pressure Suit
The researchers were part of a team assembled at the Mayo Clinic investigating the effects of high performance flight on military pilots, by studying physiological effects of flight and how to mitigate them. They used a large centrifuge to whirl riders and observe their blood pressures at the head and heart levels with special instruments. To prevent drops in blood pressure, the team designed an air bladder suit that inflated at the pilot’s calves, thighs and abdomen.
Their efforts finally culminated with the release of the first US military design in late 1943: the GPS (Gradient Pressure Suit) type fighter pilot's G-1 anti-g-suit. The team subsequently worked on developing further, more advanced models in 1944 and beyond.
Although uncomfortable and distracting to use, later research showed that military fighter pilots who wore g-suits survived and defeated their opponents in greater numbers than those who didn't.
Modern g-Suits meet the United States Air Force Standard CSU-13B/P and United States Navy Standard CSU 15 A/P. Manufactured for over 15 years by Derm-Buro, known commercially as G-Forces Manufacturing, the modern g-Suit can withstand hundreds of missions without failure.
Use in prone pilot position aircraft
During World War II the German Henschel Hs 132 (never flew) and the US Northrop XP-79 (crashed on first powered flight) jets both had prone positions to minimize blood pooling in the legs. After 1945 the British experimented with prone flying positions in a highly modified Gloster Meteor F8 jet fighter and the Reid and Sigrist R.S.3 "Bobsleigh" a piston engined trainer. However, other difficulties associated with prone piloting and the development of practical g-suits for normal seating positions terminated these experiments.
Use in military aviation and in space
Air-based g-suits were very common in NATO aircraft of all nations from the 1950s onwards and are still in common use today.
Later jets such as the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F/A-18 Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale can sustain high g loads for longer periods, and are therefore more physically demanding. However, by using a modern g-suit in combination with anti-g strain techniques, a pilot can now be expected to sustain flight forces of up to nine g without blacking out.
Astronauts wear g-suits similar to aviators but face different challenges due to the effects of microgravity. Aviator g-suits apply uniform pressure to the lower legs to minimize the effects of high acceleration but research from the Canadian Space Agency implies there might be a benefit in having a suit for astronauts that uses a "milking action" to increase blood flow to the upper body.
Use in Red Bull Air Race
Pilots in Red Bull Air Race World Championship have worn a g-suit called g-Race Suit since the 2009 season. The g-race suit is a liquid(water) filled, autonomous and aircraft independent working full-body g-protection system. It is tailor-made for each pilot and can be fine adjusted via lacings.
The g-race suit contains four so-called "fluid muscles" which are sealed, liquid-filled tubes. Each fluid muscle extends from the shoulder to the ankle. Two fluid muscles – each filled with approximately 1 litre of fluid for a total of around 4 litres (1.1 US gal) per g-race suit - are routed vertically on the front side of the g-race suit and two are routed vertically on the rear side of the g-race suit. The suit weighs on average 6.5 kilograms (14 lb) in total, and its fabric is made out of a special mix of Twaron and Nomex. The counter pressure effect occurs instantaneously without any time delay versus an up to two second delay before reaching full system protection in standard pneumatic, inflatable g-suits. The race pilot utilizes the g-race suit interactively by muscle straining and breathing techniques to achieve an improved cardiac output and thus improved G-protection.
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- Pearce, Jeremy (2009) Earl H. Wood Is Dead at 97: Helped Invent g-Suit, New York Times, March 26, 2009;
- Pitta, Robert & Fannell, Jeff & Rottman, Gordon & Windrow, Martin & McCouaig, Simon (1993) US Army Air Force, Osprey Publishing, 1993, ISBN 1-85532-295-1, ISBN 978-1-85532-295-0
- Canadian Space Agency
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