Lt. Col. Pete Schaub, left, explains the Chemical Warfare Ensemble flight suit as 1st Lt. Kyle Wallace listens during an interview Friday at Cannon Air Force Base. CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth
By Darrell Todd Maurina
CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — Eight air crew members with the 523rd Fighter Squadron have been getting strange looks recently on base.
“People look at us and they don’t know what we are,” said Lt. Col. Pete Schaub, operational support systems commander with the squadron.
What’s different about Schaub and the other seven is they’re wearing a special flight suit that has a name tag but no rank or unit insignia. That’s not a mistake: The suits are chemical warfare gear — “Joint Protective Aircrew Ensemble” in military-speak — designed to be worn by air crew members who may have to deal with the hazards of a nuclear, biologically, or chemically contaminated (NBC) environment. Cannon is field-testing the flight suit, which is designed to protect Air Force personnel without a heavy, bulky, and cumbersome uniform that may make it difficult or impossible to perform normal duties.
“Basically it’s to replace the existing protection we have in an NBC environment, chemical mainly; it’s supposed to be more comfortable and give more protection,” said 1st Lt. Kyle Wallace, another of the squadron’s volunteers.
The Cannon volunteers will be field-testing the suits for 480 hours — 60 full days of wear — during which time they can wash the suit four times and take detailed notes on when they’ve worn the suit, how it performs, any spills on the suit, and any problems they have with the suit.
“At the end of the 480-hour test period, I imagine they will take it back to the lab and cut the suit apart and see if it still retains its chemical protection capabilities,” Schaub said.
Wallace said he thought the flight suit has been a success so far.
“As far as comfort and wear, it’s fine,” Wallace said. “It’s a little thicker so it’s hotter, but from what I understand it’s more comfortable than the other one. They sent out a team to fit us, including sitting us in the cockpit to make sure we weren’t going to have any restrictions on our movement.”
Schaub said real-life situations such as wear in the cockpit are essential for proper testing of the uniform.
“Because it is more bulky than an existing flight suit, we need to be sure we aren’t having cuffs hit switches or anything,” Schaub said. “I think one of the reasons they chose the F-16 for the test is we have one of the smallest cockpits and the interiors of our jets are tight for space.”
Pilots wear flight suits because they provide flame-retardant protection that can be critical if a pilot needs to eject from a plane, and Schaub said the flight suits being tested would provide an added layer of protection in case a pilot had to eject into an area where chemical contamination is possible.
“The whole prospect of flying in a chemical environment is something we don’t want to do, but having the capability of fighting in a chemical environment is necessary,” Schaub said.