Female fighter pilots test modified ATAGS “G-suit”

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Savanah Bray
  • 53rd Wing

Five female fighter pilots tested a modified version of the Advanced Technology Anti-Gravity Suit Oct. 26-30.

ATAGS is a proven design and a critical life support item that protects aircrew members from the effects of high-G forces during maneuvers in fighter aircraft, but the ATAGS design, which has been in use since 2001, was developed primarily for standard men’s body types. Pilots who are shorter or have smaller or hard-to-fit body types often struggle to properly adjust the G-suit to fit well due to a limited range of adjustability in the standard sizes.

Directly tasked by the secretary of the Air Force, engineers and subject matter experts at Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and AFWERX set out to address priority shortfalls in female specific aircrew equipment and gear, to include ATAGS. Instead of creating a new product altogether, experts determined modifications could be made to the current ATAGS design to better fit women and various body types.

The two major modifications to the ATAGS include wider lacing panels in the waist, thigh and calf, which allows the suit to be easily adjusted for different body proportions, and the option for a “darted” or tailored, custom waist that does not reduce performance of the waist bladder that inflates during high-G maneuvers.

“In the past, some pilots with a shorter torso have had issues with ATAGS that were too large riding up and causing bruising on the rib cages, while pilots who are hard-to-fit may have had one size that fits through the legs, but need a smaller size in the waist,” said Charles Cruze, an AFLCMC Human Systems Division engineer. “Now, the waist can be darted up to 3.75 inches, allowing for a more custom and accurate fit, preventing both of those issues.”

To properly and safely test the ATAGS, the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron executed nearly 20 sorties in F-16 D-model aircraft. During these test sorties, pilots conducted low- and high-G basic fighter maneuvers and specific profiles to allow for accurate evaluation of the modified ATAGS. F-16 D-models were used so that in each sortie, a pilot wearing standard ATAGS was in the aircraft to ensure safety should an issue with the modified ATAGS arise.

“For the purpose of this test, five pilots and one aircrew member tested the modified ATAGS, and evaluated it based on comfort and performance when compared to the normal ATAGS typically worn,” said Sharon Rogers, 46th Test Squadron lead test engineer. “Pilots were asked to evaluate based on not only the ATAGS during high-G maneuvers, but also during regular activities like sitting, standing, walking and climbing into and out of the aircraft.”

“As more women strap into fast jets to get the mission done, I think the Air Force is heading in the right direction,” said Capt. Brittany Trimble, an F-16 Fighting Falcon instructor pilot, when asked about her experience testing the modified ATAGS.

The pilots and aircrew who tested the ATAGS noticed significant improvements in comfort and functionality in the modified ATAGS.

“I definitely noticed improvement with the new updates and the darted waist in particular,” Trimble said. “I honestly didn’t expect to notice much of a difference because I’d never noticed significant issues with the ATAGS sizes before, but I was pleasantly surprised that these upgrades increased the ATAGS functionality significantly under G.”

The modified ATAGS testing is also a showcase example of developmental and operational test experts coming together to provide solutions for the warfighter. Prior to flight testing, AFLCMC conducted developmental endurance testing which simulated 14 years of use on identically designed modified ATAGS. Once those versions were successfully endurance tested with no issue, flight testing began at Eglin Air Force Base with the 46th Test Squadron, 96th Test Wing providing the engineering and test planning expertise and the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron, 53rd Wing, executing the flight tests.

Following the flight testing, the 46th Test Squadron will provide a test report, explained Rogers. Under the current acquisition strategy, the modified ATAGS could be in the hands of fighter pilots and aircrew who need it within 12-24 months.

For Maj. Shanon Jamison, an F-16 pilot, testing the modified ATAGS was a great opportunity not only to help ensure pilots have gear that fits, works, and prevents G-induced loss of consciousness, or G-LOC, but also to connect with other female fighter pilots.

“It is great to see the Air Force bring female pilots together to test these new improvements, and it also gave us a chance to share our career experiences with one another,” Jamison said. “There are things we have experienced in our career that many of our colleagues cannot understand, from as simple as worrying about getting your hair caught in a harness to as complex as how to return to flying while juggling breastfeeding your infant. The chance to come together for an important test, while also receiving continued mentorship and leadership from the female cadre of fighter pilots, was both useful and fulfilling.”

Fortunately for Airmen across the Air Force, ATAGS is not the only gear getting modified or adapted for women. More information on female fitment efforts, like the security forces Airmen at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, who received a new body armor system designed for women, can be found here: https://www.aflcmc.af.mil/Units/FemaleFitment/.

“These tests are important because they will ultimately increase the lethality of those who no longer have their mask slip down during a sortie, their G-suit crunch under their waist, or the extra fabric of a too big anti-exposure suit get in the way of their movements in the jet,” Trimble said. “These don’t seem like big issues, but everything counts in the air, and having gear that fits and works as intended should be the standard. I’m excited the Air Force is working to identify and fix these issues, especially in innovative ways like provide AFE new modification options.”