Get Task & Purpose in your inbox
We Have Some Questions About That Airman-Designed 3D-Printed Gas Mask
If there’s one thing the Pentagon loves, it’s improving the U.S. armed forces without paying for it.
On June 7th, Stars and Stripes reported that a handful of entrepreneurial airmen in the life-support shop at Japan’s Yokota Air Base whipped up an ingenious invention that could potentially save the Air Force millions: a 3D-printed modification to the M50 gas mask that attaches to the standard flight helmet.
M50 Gas Mask demonstration at Eastern Washington Regional Science and Engineering Fair at the Spokane Washington State University campus, Washington, March 15, 2018.U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Ryan Lackey
As of July 2016, Air Force manual 11-301 Vol. 2 stipulates a specifically-designed aerial gas mask be used to meet chemical/biological/radiological (CBRN) requirements for aircrew. But C-130 Hercules pilot Capt. Matthew Kohl argued to Stars & Stripes that a solution was needed due to the high cost and low reliability of the current Aircrew Eye/Respiratory Protection System (AERP), which is “expensive, heavy and fault-prone with long waits for replacement parts.” Their modification, reportedly produced on an unidentified 3D printer, could potentially deliver up to $8 million in savings.
It is obviously admirable that the life-support shop saw a problem and proposed a solution; it’s impressive for the same reasons we love stories about plucky cadets making bulletproof goo. But before gushing over the amorphous cost savings of $8 million, some scrutiny from me, a salty ex-senior airman with no background in aerospace engineering, is probably for the best.
A U.S. Air Force 353rd Special Operations Support Squadron Aircrew Flying Equipment technician assists a 17th Special Operations Squadron pilot put on aircrew eye and respiratory protection system (AERPS) equipment Jan. 31, 2018, at Kadena Air Base, Japan.U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Jessica Tait
Aircraft life-support equipment is engineered to meet very specific standards to survive the stresses of flight. Masks flown at altitude are designed and tested to very specific tolerances for factors like protection levels and filter requirements known as Pressure Breathing for Altitude (PBA)/Pressure Breathing for Gravity (PBG). The average M50 filter is designed to stop fourth-generation nerve agents, like the Novichok nerve agent used in that insane UK spy attack in March, for roughly 15 minutes.
But when both of these requirements are combined, the unintended consequences could be catastrophic. These fourth-generation nerve agents were, in turn, designed to defeat the standard-issue protective gear used by U.S. forces during the Vietnam era — and this means the addition of a 3D-printed adapter could create an unforeseen weak point in the M50 system that was designed to counter these agents.
In addition, the permeability of the plastics used by the unnamed 3D printer are a point of concern as they likely haven’t been vetted by a chemical engineer. The modified gas mask may hold up against OC pepper spray, but it is doubtful that the life support team could test the new system against a highly controlled chemical like VX or Novichok.
Besides those questions, the AE/RPS is complex in part because it is designed to take on a 100% oxygen flow. If an aircraft is flying in an unpressurized environment above 10,000 feet, that oxygen would have to pump through this gas mask filter that, with charcoal among the activated components, raises questions about the impact of altitude on the jury-rigged seal — namely, is it a fire risk?
A U.S. Air Force 17th Special Operations Squadron pilot executes in-flight training with aircrew eye and respiratory protection system (AERPS) equipment Jan. 31, 2018, off the coast of Okinawa, Japan.U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Jessica Tait
To be clear, nobody’s pretending this mask is going into circulation immediately. Lt. Col. Richard F. McElhaney, Jr., 374th Operations Support Squadron commander released a statement to Task & Purpose that the new M50 gas mask modification “is still in testing to ensure that it's practical and durable,” a “first step in continuous process improvement.” And in the popular Facebook group Air Force amn/nco/snco forum, one of the designers acknowledged that the system required significant improvement when asked about the mix of oxygen in charcoal mentioned above.
Beyond the possible additional costs in research, development and certification of this airman designed system, they may actually end up duplicating the efforts that the U.S. military has put into finding a successor to the aging AE/RPS. The U.S. military already fields the Joint Service Aircrew Mask–Rotary Wing (MPU-5), which the M-50 modified gas mask is attempting to emulate. But the U.S. Air Force is also currently testing the Joint Service Aircrew Mask for Strategic Aircraft, or JSAM SA XM-69, for use in non-rotary wing aircraft.
Although there is no public timetable on the XM-69’s testing and possible deployment, the unique technical requirements and high stakes of the project undoubtedly are part of the equation. Once the new system begins to deploy, the need for modified aircrew gas mask systems will fade — assuming the modified mask is certified in a timely manner.
Erin Kennedy, a chemical engineer for the Army and the Joint Service Aircrew Mask - Fixed Wing (JSAM-FW) Research Team test and evaluation lead, gets feedback from Technical Sgt. Michael Lindamood during a field evaluation of the gear. A Department of Defense research team working on the development of a joint service aircrew mask conducted field assessments at the 167th Airlift Wing, West Virginia Air National Guard unit in Martinsburg, W.Va., Dec. 7, 2011.Master Sgt. Emily Beightol-Deyerle
Of course, none of this is an indictment of the attempt to find a novel solution to an expensive and pervasive problem. “We hope this innovation will spark continued testing on the concept for AF-wide efficiency and cost savings,” McElhaney told Task & Purpose. “Our Airmen's ingenuity and motivation is absolutely amazing, and we hope the current momentum continues to inspire others to look for ways to increase efficiency."
But this also isn’t the first time that an obvious (and cheap) solution to a glaring problem turned out to be more hype than a long-term solution. Just ask the U.S. Army soldiers who built the IronMan machine gun support system in the field, only for it to be found redundant and inferior to products already available to Pentagon. But when items that have such a massive impact on operations are proposed, some caution and evaluation should temper overzealous praise.
The world of government contracting is complex and slow moving, prone to cost overruns and fraud, waste and abuse. But certain systems are so complex that there is usually not a good, simple, and cheap alternative to the expensive solution of the procurement process. As much as we want to see U.S. service members finding solutions to problems and fixing them, sometimes the best move is to idle the throttle a bit before flying into unknown skies.
A enlisted thinktank brought to you by Task & Purpose
'We are dropping like flies' — Former fighter pilots are pushing the Pentagon for earlier cancer screenings
WASHINGTON — Former Air Force and Navy fighter pilots are calling on the military to begin cancer screenings for aviators as young as 30 because of an increase in deaths from the disease that they suspect may be tied to radiation emitted in the cockpit.
"We are dropping like flies in our 50s from aggressive cancers," said retired Air Force Col. Eric Nelson, a former F-15E Strike Eagle weapons officer. He cited prostate and esophageal cancers, lymphoma, and glioblastomas that have struck fellow pilots he knew, commanded or flew with.
Army and Air Force Exchange Service officials are warning soldiers and military families to be aware of scammers using the Exchange's logo.
In a news release Wednesday, Exchange officials said scammers using the name "Exchange Inc." have "fooled" soldiers and airmen to broker the sale of used cars, trucks, motorcycles, boats and boat engines.
KABUL (Reuters) - The Islamic State (IS) militant group claimed responsibility on Sunday for a suicide blast at a wedding reception in Afghanistan that killed 63 people, underlining the dangers the country faces even if the Taliban agrees a pact with the United States.
The Saturday night attack came as the Taliban and the United States try to negotiate an agreement on the withdrawal of U.S. forces in exchange for a Taliban commitment on security and peace talks with Afghanistan's U.S.-backed government.
Islamic State fighters, who first appeared in Afghanistan in 2014 and have since made inroads in the east and north, are not involved in the talks. They are battling government and U.S.-led international forces and the Taliban.
The group, in a statement on the messaging website Telegram, claimed responsibility for the attack at a west Kabul wedding hall in a minority Shi'ite neighborhood, saying its bomber had been able to infiltrate the reception and detonate his explosives in the crowd of "infidels".
Calling aviation geeks in New York City: The British are coming.
In their first visit to the United States since 2008, the Royal Air Force "Red Arrows" will perform an aerial demonstration next week over the Hudson River, according to an Air Force news release. F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels demonstration teams will also be part of the show.
Frances and Efrain Santiago, natives of Puerto Rico, wanted to show their support last month for protesters back home seeking to oust the island's governor.
The couple flew the flag of Puerto Rico on the garage of their Kissimmee home. It ticked off the homeowners association.
Someone from the Rolling Hills Estates Homeowners Association left a letter at their home, citing a "flag violation" and warning: "Please rectify the listed violation or you may incur a fine."
Frances Santiago, 38, an Army veteran, demanded to know why.