Cold-Weather Gear Company Partners With Air Force to Create Lightweight Flight Suit

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An F-16 Viper Demonstration Team pilot refuels with a KC-135 Stratotanker.
An F-16 Viper Demonstration Team pilot refuels with a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 465th Air Refueling Squadron assigned to Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, March 8, 2021. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Mary Begy)

A Portland, Oregon-based company that specializes in cold-weather gear is about to begin work with the U.S. Air Force on a flight suit that keeps pilots warm at high altitudes.

Oros Apparel, a subsidy of Lukla Inc., has been awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I contract that will explore how the company's SolarCore technology can be integrated into a long-range flight suit for pilots flying above 30,000 feet, said Michael Markesbery, Oros' co-founder and CEO.

Aircraft that can fly above 30,000 feet include fighters like the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-15 Eagle as well as some cargo platforms such as the C-17 Globemaster III. While all these aircraft have their own environmental conditioning systems, the flight suits would act as an added layer of protection at altitudes where air temperatures can range between -40°F to -70°F, Markesbery said in an email Tuesday.

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The suits will use Oros' SolarCore aerogel technology, the same used by NASA to insulate some of its spacecraft.

Aerogels are a special material that removes internal liquid through "a process known as supercritical drying, leaving a porous solid filled with air," according to the space agency. The resulting product is nearly weightless.

"[The material's] biggest benefit is its lack of dependence on loft or bulk," Markesbery said. For a fighter pilot whose movement might be constricted by a conventional thick coat, this is a key feature.

The SolarCore aerogel design doesn't require bulky materials to function and maintains thermal performance under compression.

"With SOLARCORE, you can have a thin amount of insulation that actually provides significant thermal value," Markesbery said. "This provides incredible benefits around mobility, which is incredibly important for a pilot."

Oros’ commercially available outerwear that uses the insulation technology ranges in price from $150 to $500, according to the company’s website.

Markesbery did not provide a contract amount for this stage of the project, which was greenlit by AFWERX, an Air Force innovation program that partners with small businesses and academia.

The announcement comes weeks after the Air Force posted a list of its priorities for next-generation apparel for its aircrew -- and heated flight suits were near the top.

The service wants to reduce the bulky clothing layers flight crews add for warmth, so it's looking for an "electrically or electrical-heated" underlayer or outer layer that would cover an airman's feet, hands, torso and legs, Air Force Materiel Command spokesman Brian Brackens said earlier this month.

Heating the body in a more concentrated way increases blood flow and thus could reduce the potential for cold injuries. The new approaches will "enhance individual maneuverability, agility and protection in a broader working envelope," Brackens said.

Helicopter crews that watch over the service's Intercontinental Ballistic Missile fields are some of the candidates for these heated flight suits, Brackens said.

Northern bases such as Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, and F. E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, would be some of the first locations where helicopter aircrews could use the extra warmth while on patrol. Their use also could apply to those who are deployed in the mountains of Afghanistan, the Korean Peninsula and Alaska, among other locations.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: Heated Flight Suits on Air Force's Priority List for Aircrews

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