The latest flight jacket gives pilots a real feel for flying

August 04, 1999

An unusual flight jacket that prods pilots in the torso could save their lives-and save the US Department of Defense more than $300 million a year in written-off aircraft, say researchers in Florida.

The new tactile flight jacket is designed to prevent pilots becoming disoriented when taking off at extreme accelerations from an aircraft carrier, for example, or when visibility is low. The sensory overload they experience, or the lack of visual clues, can cause fatal confusion.

Spatial disorientation can occur quite easily in aircraft for a number of different reasons, says Timothy Wright, a navy pilot who has overseen the development of the jacket at the Institute of Human and Machine Cognition at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. Planes taking off from aircraft carriers, for instance, are accelerated from zero to 240 kilometres per hour in just two seconds by a steam catapult. The sensation you experience when accelerated at this rate is likely to mislead rookie pilots, says Wright. "It makes you feel like the aircraft is pitching up when in fact it may not be."

This is because the pilots feel an unusually high force, typically about four times the force of gravity, pushing on their backs, but have few visual stimuli to help their brains correct the illusion, especially at night. Wright says that the tendency is for the pilot to try and bring the aircraft level by pointing it downward. "The worst-case scenario is you could push forward and fly into the water."

The team's answer is a jacket that gives the pilot sensory cues about the direction of the plane instantly, without having to check the instrument panel. Lined with pressure actuators, the jacket alerts the pilot when the plane ceases to be level by prodding part of his or her torso, depending on the direction of the plane. If the plane pitches 30 degrees to the left, for example, the jacket-called the tactile stimulation awareness system (TSAS)-will prod the pilot on the lower left side.

Part of the advantage of using tactile stimuli is that the human body needs no time to process touch: you instantly know where you are being touched. As Anil Raj, one of the researchers behind the jacket, says: "If someone pats you on the shoulder there is no cognitive process involved in knowing where they have hit you."

TSAS has already helped pilots improve their flight performance in hazardous conditions. One version alerted pilots to the whereabouts of enemy aircraft, tapping them on the shoulder to say "it's behind you". In another test, a group of helicopter pilots were blindfolded and asked to hover their aircraft at low altitude while maintaining a stationary position in a crosswind. Without TSAS jackets, pilots tended to drift by about seven metres, but when they were wearing them this distance was halved.
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Author: Duncan Graham-Rowe
New Scientist issue 7th August 99

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New Scientist

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