What Is a Combat Pilot Helmet? Definition, Meaning and Concept

A fighter pilot helmet is a form of protective headgear worn by a fighter pilot. From the aircraft's first use as a weapon of war at the start of World War I through the late 1940s, most fighter pilots wore canvas, cloth, or leather hats for protection. While the image of a pilot wearing a leather headdress, a pair of goggles, and a scarf around his neck evokes many feelings of romance and nostalgia, the truth is that the headgear of that era provided very little protection for the pilot.

Leather caps worn by fighter pilots were primarily designed to protect the pilot from wind and cold, not injury. In later years these boundaries were modified to contain communications systems for the pilot, but essentially provided little protection. The advent of the jet age required a different approach to the fighter pilot's helmet. Fighter aircraft operate at higher speeds than their propeller-driven counterparts and the increased speed resulted in greater aerodynamic forces on the aircraft and pilot. This brought pilot protection to the forefront of thought within the world's military services.

In the age of the propeller, a pilot of a damaged fighter plane would simply unbuckle his seat, climb out of the cockpit, and parachute to safety. The higher operating speeds of fighter aircraft made this traditional method of exiting an aircraft dangerous for the pilot and consequently obsolete. The ejection seat was developed to allow a pilot to quickly exit a fast-moving jet aircraft.

An ejector pilot is subjected to extreme atmospheric forces when leaving the closed environment of the fighter aircraft. The ejection pilot could experience a force of up to 20 times the force of gravity when encountering the slipstream. The fighter pilot's helmet provides the pilot with a measure of protection against these atmospheric forces.

In the mid to late 1940s, some drivers resorted to wearing such items as modified football helmets, army tank helmets, and race car helmets. In the late 1940s, hard shell helmets were introduced to military forces around the world and the "bone dome," as the fighter pilot's helmet was often called, soon became standard equipment for the jet fighter pilot.

However, while the general shape of early fighter pilot helmets and today's helmets may be similar, the functions are very different. Today's fighter pilot helmets now do more than provide protection; they can actually help a pilot become a better pilot. Instead of simply helping the pilot avoid injury or death in the event of an ejection or crash, modern helmets can help the pilot avoid situations that could lead to possible injury or death.

Today's fighter pilot helmet may include helmet displays that allow the pilot to monitor aircraft functions without having to look at the aircraft's instrument panel. In the supersonic world a fighter pilot works in, a plane can travel thousands of feet in the amount of time it takes to look at the instrument panel. In aerial combat, the difference between life and death is often measured in mere seconds.

There are also helmets that not only allow a pilot to monitor aircraft operations, but also allow him to track, lock on, and fire at targets simply by looking at the target. A new helmet designed to work in conjunction with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in the United States has taken helmet technology to a new level. The plane was designed to include infrared sensors in key areas of the fighter, which connect to the pilot's helmet.