This airman created an outrageously realistic 'Iron Man' suit

Author:
Publish date:

When compared to the likes of genius billionaire playboy philanthropist Tony Stark, Frank Pillar is quick to joke that he "may be closer to Tony Stank" than the alter ego of Marvel's Iron Man.

But he might be selling himself short. After all, the Air Force technical sergeant is a skilled mechanic, spending his days working on F-15 engines at Royal Air Force base Lakenheath in England, where he lives with his wife and two dogs. 

More importantly, he's an accomplished inventor in his own right, having built an entire (and almost fully functional) Iron Man suit himself:

While Pillar's suit may not be built for the battlefield, neither were any of the prototypes that came out of the Pentagon's ill-fated quest for an Iron Man suit of its own — and in this case, at least, it didn't cost the taxpayers millions of dollars and decades of research.

In fact, it took less than a year for Pillar to go from novice to Avenger-level creator. 

"I started 3D printing as a general hobby back in July 2019 with the end goal of making this suit after being a life-long Iron Man and Marvel fan and seeing Avengers: Endgame," Pillar told Task & Purpose. 

Tech Sgt. Frank Pillar in his Iron Man suit

Tech Sgt. Frank Pillar in his Iron Man suit

Pillar got to work in earnest in September of that year, buying two "hobby-level" 3D printers and teaching himself how to use them. From there, he printed out 75 separate parts over 1,200 hours, which he then assembled, glued, velcroed, trimmed, strapped, dremeled, and adjusted until they fit his body. 

Next came the painting, which "was a whole other demon compared to what I was used to" Pillar said. "Dialing in the correct colors and tones, it's all 100 percent rattle can Rustoleum spray paint."

In terms of materials, the whole project set Pillar back roughly $700, not including the 3D printers which practically paid for themselves after he sold several props he created to help cover the hobby's cost.

Weighing in at 20 pounds, the suit boasts a range of features that are controlled by the wearer. Pillar, who describes himself as a "stubborn 'car guy'" with a deep knowledge of automotive electronics, decided to do all the suit's electronics himself rather than learn how to code.

"All of the motion controls and functions are controlled by tiny magnetic switches hidden in my fingers and thumbs," he said. "I'm very proud of this accomplishment in particular."

With the flick of a wrist, Pillar can toggle the hand repulsor lights on or off. A snap of his fingers causes the replica Infinity Stones to glow. Don't worry, half of all life isn't extinguished every time this happens. Someone would have noticed by now. 

A different gesture lights up the Arc Reactor facsimile on the suit's chest, and by touching his forefinger to his thumb he can lift his facemask up, or lower it back down — at which point the eyes automatically light up.

"Believe it or not, this is my first cosplay costume ever," he said.

Pillar can trace his love of comics back to his childhood, and his father in particular, who passed away shortly after he started working on the suit.

"I wouldn't be in this hobby if not for my dad," Pillar said. "He took me to see the first Iron Man when I was 16 and I was hooked ever since with Marvel and the movies."

"I almost quit this entire hobby and dream when he died because it was a painful reminder," Pillar said, but he decided to stick with it. And as he did his motivation changed: "If I couldn't show my dad, I would show others who it would bring some happiness to."

Pillar donned his Iron Man suit to pose for pictures during a COVID-safe trick or treating event at RAF Midenhall this year.

Pillar donned his Iron Man suit to pose for pictures during a COVID-safe trick or treating event at RAF Midenhall this year.

Since he began working on the suit, Pillar has built out an impressive following on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram where he posts instructional videos for others who are new to the hobby under his handle Frankly Built. 

And his audience likely includes some fellow U.S. service members.

"There was a surprising amount of geeks and nerds hiding amongst the ranks, not just the Air Force," Pillar said. "It's not like it was 20-30 years ago where comic book fans and anime lovers were made fun of. It's a pop-culture norm now."

Related: The inside story behind the Pentagon’s ill-fated quest for a real life 'Iron Man' suit