Not all flights fit the profile that requires a flight helmet, but there are a few cases where it is prudent to have one. Operations that routinely involve proximity to Mother Earth and/or other aircraft are also prime candidates for unexpected or unintended contact between the parties involved.
There are cases where the difference between a close call and a tragic accident are the split-second decisions made by the crew members once things start to go wrong, but a common thread to all the happy endings is that the pilots were alive and conscious.
During hard impacts, a flight helmet can mean the difference between being able to react to the situation and being along for the ride due to a head injury.
How to Choose a Pilot Helmet
There are many things to keep in mind when choosing a pilot helmet, and these need to be taken seriously as they affect the level of protection offered.
A common mistake is to buy second-hand helmets. While this may seem like an innocent practice, a helmet’s structural integrity is affected even by dropping it on the floor by accident, and the protective shell designed to keep your head in one piece has a limited life span.
It is impossible to be sure if a second-hand helmet being sold has been dropped or involved in an accident, and while its age may be easier to trace, you will not be able to wear it for too long.
If you are not sure on the exact sizing, pick the slightly larger option – a size too big can be padded at a shop, while a size too small will create pressure points on different parts of your head.
There are as many flying profiles as there are helmets, so make sure to pick one appropriate for your needs. A lightweight helmet made with safe ejections in mind may not provide the level of protection required for the dangers encountered by a helicopter pilot going bush flying, for example.
Make sure that your helmet’s seller can provide the level of support required by you or your employer. This can be an issue when ordering from overseas suppliers without maintenance centers near you. The consequences of this can be very expensive shipping fees at regular intervals or being unable to use the helmet to work if it cannot be serviced properly on time.
Measuring and Fitting
Use a measuring tape to get your head’s circumference. Make sure to place the tape right above your brow line or around 1/8” (about 3mm) above your ear. Check that the tape is not slacking. Should your measurements fall between sizes, go for the next largest one.
If you are opting for a helmet that comes with an oxygen mask, also measure the distance between its contact points with your face. For most masks, this will be the bridge of the nose and either your chin or slightly below your lower lip. Check the mask model you are interested in so you can get the right numbers.
With these measurements at hand, compare them to the manufacturer’s size charts for the specific model you are interested in. Most suppliers will standardize them across their lines, but there may be cases where an M in one option is an S for another, for example.
Pick the Add-Ons You Need
Requirements vary wildly between pilots, and so do their helmet accessories. A helmet for sale may mean many things, so pay close attention to the description to avoid overpaying now or later.
Many sellers provide the helmet’s shell without any add-ons, while others offer complete packages with microphones, earphones, padding, visors, cables, and other accessories. Most sellers will offer a discount if you purchase everything in one go, so enquire about that when ordering.
Wear it Right
First and foremost, check that the helmet fits nicely. If not, use the padding that comes with it to make it comfortable on your head. This may take some trial and error.
Before take-off, always check if your chin strap is tightened. The goal is not to make it uncomfortable but to ensure it keeps your helmet firmly in place. If your helmet includes a visor, remove the cover, and put it down. The same applies to oxygen masks – if you have them, wear them!
It may be tempting to do your best Top Gun impersonation with the mask dangling off to the side, visors up, rocking those Ray-Bans as you fly about, but looking cool does not equal being safe.
Stylish sunglasses not only cannot protect you in the event of a crash or a bird strike, but they also are a great hazard to your vision as the lenses are prone to shattering – having sharp glass shards right in front of your eyes is a bad experience!
Take Care of Your Helmet
While they are built tough and have crash protection in mind, to work as intended during these situations, a flight helmet needs to be treated like a delicate item during regular operations.
Common sense is your friend. Do not drop a helmet or leave it in areas where it can easily be knocked down, as this will compromise its structural integrity. Keep it outside of the sun when not in use to avoid deterioration, and do not clean it with anything other than a damp cloth. If your helmet has a visor, use a microfiber one.
Broadly speaking, a helmet is at home in a helmet bag. Keep it there before you fly and put it back in before you leave the aircraft if possible. This helps protect it from the factors most likely to damage it.
Even when taking care to avoid preventable damage, a helmet still needs to be serviced in regular intervals like most aviation components.
This is a crucial consideration when choosing a particular brand and model: make sure you have local access to maintenance and spare parts; otherwise, your helmet might be out of commission for many months!
Popular Helmet Options
There are many flight helmet brands available, and even more models by each. Some of the options in the market fit many applications. Others are tailored towards very specific niches. The following recommendations are about general purpose ones that can be used for anything from ultralights to high-performance fighters.
MSA Gallet (France)
Widely regarded as the gold standard across the globe, Gallet helmets are a favorite among civilians and military clients alike. The French manufacturer has been a staple on the headwear market for many decades and offers high-quality gear for many uses besides aviation, including firefighters.
The MSA Gallet line is famous for combining all desirable attributes a pilot wants in a helmet: they are light, comfortable, adjustable, low-maintenance and, most importantly, very sturdy.
Their downside compared to peers is their high price point. It is possible to find the LH-050 from $2000 and up depending on the supplier, though a more complete or complex kit might set you back upwards of $4000.
Within their aviation range, Gallet has four versions in the market:
- LH-050: A simple helmet for pilots that do not need complex add-ons. It can fit communication gear and a visor if needed, but it lacks the attachment points for NVGs and oxygen masks.
- LH-250: A lightweight and highly versatile helmet that can be used in many different applications. It can fit two visors, oxygen masks, communications gear, night-vision goggles – whatever you need. You can also just plug in the radio and go if that is all you need.
- LH-350: Gallet’s main rotary-wing offering, built to meet the rigid operational requirements of military and search and rescue pilots. It offers greater crash protection at the expense of the overall weight, making it less suitable for ejections.
- LA-100: The newest MSA Gallet helmet, built specifically to offer protection while remaining light enough to be comfortable and safe for high-G maneuvering and use with ejection seats.
Gentex HGU (US)
Helmet, General Use – the HGU in Gentex’s ubiquitous line is true to its name. The HGU line has been around since the early days of the jet age and has become a staple of American airpower.
They are cheaper than the Gallet offerings but still bring good levels of comfort, protection and are usually lightweight.
Depending on where you live, it may be harder to procure them as the helmets are subject to export control due to their military applications. Prices usually sit between $1500 and $2500 for the shell, avionics, and visors.
These are the most popular Gentex flight helmets available today for fixed-wing pilots:
- HGU-55: Their bestselling offer, the HGU-55 line, was built with the introduction of the USAF’s F-15 and F-16 in mind. The higher maneuverability of these aircraft incurred higher G-forces, so keeping their headgear light was seen as a procurement priority to reduce strain on the pilots’ necks. This model is usually available in two options: the HGU-55/P, with the visor, manually actuated and attached through a strap placed around the helmet, and the HGU-55/E, where the visor is enclosed by a protective assembly and brought down by a rail.
- HGU-68/P: An improvement on the HGU-55 design for fixed-wing flying, commissioned by the Navy and Marine Corps. They are light, comfortable, and sturdy, with a single-track visor.
The HGU-55 and HGU-68 are comfortable and light but were design with high-G maneuvers and ejections in mind. Meeting these requirements forced Gentex to compromise on certain aspects to achieve the weight goals to make them safe and comfortable.
A side-effect of this is their impact protection is limited compared to the HGU-56 and HGU-84, so pilots not flying high-performance jets should consider the following two as alternatives.
- HGU-56: A rotary-wing helmet designed for the US Army’s requirements but also used by the US Marine Corps in the new V-22 Osprey tiltrotor design. It offers good crash protection and mounts two visors in a protective enclosure, which can also be fitted with a mount for night vision goggles.
- HGU-84: The helmet of choice for most US Navy and US Marine Corps rotary applications, based on the HGU-55 design. It is a lightweight helmet with good levels of protection and can use the visor attachments common to the HGU-55/P, HGU-55/E, and a special double-visor enclosure made for the HGU-84.
Great Britain’s prime helmet manufacturers have three families to offer and are a good blend of comfort, safety, and price. It is possible to get a fully kitted Alpha helmet with two visors for $1900 and up.
Alpha’s main offerings are fit for both fixed-wing and rotary medical use, but they also have products catered for passengers. Their current product line is focused on three options:
- Alpha Eagle Helmet: A flexible design for all applications, with dual visors and a highly customizable range of add-ons.
- Alpha 900 Helmet: The main military option by Alpha, also fit for fixed and rotary-wing flying and compatible with many accessories. The main advantage of the 900 over the Eagle is its compatibility with military-oriented gear like NVGs, oxygen masks, waterproof avionics, and so on.
- Alpha 400 Helmet: Worth a special mention, the 400 series is built for those who require protection but are not required to pack as many accessories. Made for passengers, doctors, paramedics, and others aboard, it is lightweight and more flexible in terms of fitting to account for the higher rotation of personnel, unlike aircrews who usually bring their own gear. They can be outfitted with double visors and communication gear.
Who Benefits From Helmets the Most?
Crop-dusting and agricultural flying as a whole are aviation niches more prone to situations where a helmet is useful than others. Most flights, particularly over crops, are spent at very low altitudes to make sure the spray reaches the addressees in the appropriate quantities and concentrations. The low altitudes involved bring a few risks.
The first and most obvious one is the risk of controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). Less air between the aircraft and the ground means smaller errors have much bigger consequences than experienced at cruise altitude.
Rooted in the same problem is the reaction time available for in-flight emergencies – a pilot flying 10ft over a field does not enjoy the altitude reserve and options available to someone experiencing the same issue at 5000ft.
There is less time to identify the issue and react appropriately, which also leads to less altitude to trade for speed and range, and a limited field of vision to translate into, for example, a suitable place to make an emergency landing.
Sudden or gradual and unnoticed changes in elevation or obstacles like trees, power lines, lamp posts, and others are dangers exclusive to low fliers as well, which can turn a good day of flying into an accident in a flash.
The proximity to the ground is also something helicopter pilots generally experience more than their fixed-wing peers.
Rotary pilots work with much lower ceilings and often land in areas that are outside prepared helipads or airports, which may come with obstacles in one or many directions. Inevitably, this increases the risk of accidents.
Pilots involved in aerobatics, particularly show performers, fly their display so close to the ground to be in the view of spectators.
The combination of pushing their aircraft to the edge of their envelope, often with aerobatic routines that include stalls and spins at low altitude, can be dangerous. Meanwhile, formation fliers usually spend more time close to other aircraft in a day than most do in their entire career.
Today’s pioneers of aviation, test pilots, also experience hazards outside the usual set others are exposed to. New aircraft or component designs go through a growing process that involves identifying and resolving issues that crop up during the development, testing, and certification phase.
Test pilots are the ones to take these additions to aviation up, and while most flights are smooth, constructive rides, there are times where critical components fail. The rate at which this happens is much higher than in regular operations.
On the other end of the scale, there are pilots working with vintage restored aircraft. Warbird fliers ply their trade on machines that underwent a painstakingly long and thorough process to make them airworthy again, and the work of those involved in keeping history flying Is nothing short of impressive.
However, the effects of aging can sometimes affect components in ways that are not detected during inspections or maintenance, leading to incidents and accidents.
In the case of high-performance piston-engine fighters, the sheer power available to the pilot increases the speeds at which things happen, and this also applies to when they go wrong.
Wearing head protection makes the job a lot less hazardous for pilots in the areas described above, among others. Equally important to having a helmet is choosing the right one for you, so make sure to follow the steps outlined in this guide to get the appropriate gear.
Question: Who Should Wear a Flight Helmet?
Answer: Helmets are recommended to pilots who are more exposed to hazards, be it low altitude, formation flying, or others.
Question: What to Keep in Mind When Buying?
Answer: Buy new, get the right measurements, pick a model fit for your intended use, select the accessories you need, opt for local lifetime support if possible.
Question: What to do if Your Head Size Falls Between Two Options?
Answer: Pick the largest of the two and use the padding supplied with the helmet to make up for the difference.
Question: How to Take Care of Your Pilot helmet?
Answer: Do not drop it. Keep it away from direct sunlight, only wash it with a damp cloth, meet the maintenance intervals.
Question: What Are the Best Multipurpose Flight Helmet Sellers Today?
Answer: Most pilots swear by products by MSA Gallet, Gentex, or Alpha, though there are many others in the market that may fit your needs better depending on what you are after.