This story written by Frank Murray, A-12 Pilot

Call sign, Dutch 20.


This treatise serves to explain the things that happened to me on the way to qualifying to fly the A-12 airplane, from the viewpoint of the things that must be done to protect the pilot in the A-12 operational environment. At the operational altitudes and speeds where the A-12 operates, the physical environment would kill the pilot in seconds without the protection provided by the Pressure Suit. That is, if the cabin pressurization failed for any reason, and the pilot was not using a Pressure Suit, his blood would boil at normal body temperature, in the words from an Old Time Radio Police Story, "Curtains for certain".

The Pressure Suit: Model S-901.

CIA Pilot Frank Murray and his A-12 at Groom Lake, NevadaThe Pressure Suits used by the A-12 pilots were designed and built by the David Clark Company in Worcestershire, Massachusetts. David Clark Company is a pioneer developer/builder of these suits. This company has been furnishing Pressure Suits for the Military and NASA for decades.

The purpose of the Suit is to provide a livable pressure atmosphere for the human body when the cockpit or out of cockpit atmosphere is dangerous to the suit wearer. The human body operates very well at ambient atmospheric pressures up to 10000' above Sea Level. Sea Level barometric pressure is approximately 14.7 PSI. The barometric pressure at 85000' is about .25 PSI. The need for an artificial atmosphere on the pilot's body is provided automatically by the Pressure Suit. The suit provides body pressure, at the same time it provides a pure Oxygen atmosphere to the pilot in the helmet for breathing.

The S-901 Pressure Suit was equipped with redundant control regulators (for safety). Under normal situations the air and oxygen for the suit was furnished by the airplane oxygen, air pressure/ventilation systems. An emergency backup supply was enclosed in the parachute backpack. This was mainly to support the pilot after ejection from the airplane.

In normal flight conditions, the airplane systems provided a ventilated (cooled) atmosphere with 100% oxygen breathing for the pilot. The helmet included a headset and externally adjustable microphone. The clear glass pressure faceplate includes a heated element, and a tinted external visor (sunglasses) is part of the design.

The helmet is attached to the Pressure Suit with a locking ring fitting, this also connected to the suit main body by a cable cinch-down mechanism to hold the helmet down when the suit is inflated. It takes time to get used to flying with all this gear on your body. By the time my formal flight training (10 flts) was complete the suit was not much of a problem. You must have a need for speed to put up with some stuff.

Suit fitting:

I think all of the OXCART Project pilots had some experience with flight using Pressure Suits before coming to the A-12 program. This author had flown in partial pressure suits while flying F-101 Voodoos at the 60th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in Massachusetts. The partial pressure suit is an uncomfortable thing. It utilizes physical compression of the suit garment to hold the body under pressure, whereas the full pressure suit uses an enclosed body vessel that provides air pressure to simulate normal atmospheric conditions on the body. The full pressure suit is relatively comfy, though it limits movement of the hands, arms and legs when inflated. The pilot can safely finish a mission after losing cabin pressure when he is equipped with a full pressure suit. The partial pressure suit is more of a "get me down safely" rather than a mission completion garment.

Following my physiological exams by the CIA, I was sent to Massachusetts to visit the good people at the David Clark Company for suit fitting.. The David Clark Company is primarily a manufacturer of ladies foundation garments, girdles, brassieres and such. Their sideline of building the Pressure Suits used by the United States to go to Space, the Moon, and the many High Altitude flight programs attest to their competence and dedication.

When I got to the factory, an old brown stone building in the old textile district, I was introduced to the crew that would hand build my "tailored suit" As I remember the scene, several women measured my body and made notes for reference. The suit was built in stages, some of the parts were off-the-shelf.

Like the cotton underwear. The "long johns" were the underlayment against the pilots skin, these were furnished in white and olive drab. These two piece underwear with a turtle neck and extended sleeves made the next part of the suit quite comfortable. These pieces were standard size items.

The inner pressure garment:

This part of the suit is sort of a body glove. This part is inflated by air under pressure when needed. This garment is of a flexible fabric that is "waterproof" The next part to be built is the:

Link net:

This is the support netting that overlays the inner pressure garment, preventing "blowouts" of the pressure garment. The link net is a critical part of the suit system, tailored to the person using the suit.

The last part of the suit to be built is the,

Outer protective garment:

This is the coverall which takes the scuffing and contact with the cockpit world. It is made of a heavier canvas like material with sewn on pockets. Several colors were used on the outer garments. The OXCART pilots suits were either white or silver. This coverall provides the attachment points for the pressure regulators, ventilation fittings, flotation bladder, the glove connections, neck ring and the communication interfaces. This all takes considerable time, since they build the pieces, then trial fit and adjust until they are satisfied that all is right. These women are EXPERT at their craft. While the suit is being assembled, a casting is made of the pilots head so that a proper fitting helmet can be mated to the suit. Finally the suit is donned, checked for basic comfort, leak testing, and ready for the function testing. David Clark Company did not do function testing/training. This was done by another company.

Pressure suit gloves:

These gloves are a major part of the suit system. They are attached to the suit by ring connectors, much like the ring connector used to attach the helmet to the upper body of the suit. The gloves are tailored to the user and somewhat similarly built like the pressure suit with a couple layers, an inner pressure glove, covered with a protective outer contact surface. The palms of the gloves are lined with a soft thin layer that allows good feel contact with switches, knobs, the control stick etc. Sort of like kid skin gloves. The outer (back of hand) part of the glove is made of a material that is similar to the outer protective garment.

It is the same color as the outer garment, but the palm of the glove is black colored suede finish. Another feature of the glove is the addition of some "break-bars" on the palm of the glove and at the wrist. When the suit inflates, so do the gloves. The glove becomes stiff and the pilot cannot close his gloved hand to hold the stick grip. The break-bars are segmented metal rods that connect to a lace lanyards on the back of the glove. After suit inflation the pilot can easily pull each of the lanyard straps, which cinch up the segmented break-bars, this making a crease in the glove palm and wrist. Not an easy thing to do but the pilot can continue his mission with the right "stuff".

A provision for the wear of a wrist watch was made in the form of a pocket on the left hand glove. There were two panel mounted clocks in the A-12, but someone must have voiced a requirement for a watch pocket on the glove. The only watch that could sustain reliable operation in the A-12 cockpit environment was the Bulova "Astronaut" battery powered watch. It had a tuning fork time base and was impervious to the sometimes 140F cockpit temperature. Point of interest, my issued Bulova "Astronaut" watch still runs fine, I only wear that watch at the Roadrunners Reunion.

Boots and spurs:

The boots provided by David Clark were oversize since they had to cover the "footsies" of the pressure suit. All OXCART pilot suit boots were white leather with a "quick-don" zipper in the front lace area.

The boots were made like combat boots, but were of softer leather. Nobody walked very far in these boots.

A set of spurs were provided to make the pilots legs compatible with the leg restraint feature of the Lockheed ejection seat. When the pilot entered the cockpit, he stood in front of the seat, then pushed his heels down in front of the seat base, engaging the spur notch into the cable ball fitting. Then he could sit down, moving his legs forward with the cables engaged on the spurs. This spur arrangement was used on Lockheed F-104's and some Convair F-106's that had a similar ejection system.

Suit testing

Immediately following my personal suit manufacture, some of the David Clark Company technicians and I went to the Firewell Corporation facilities in Batavia, New York for environmental testing/training.

Firewell Corporation built some of the A-12 life support system including the parachute system and its enclosed life support system. Firewell built the test chamber at their plant. The high altitude simulation chamber complete with a somewhat similar A-12 cockpit enclosure. This chamber was designed to provide the low pressure/high temperature conditions to test and ensure that the new suit "wearer" was confident in the suits capability/safety.

I was subjected to a simulated six hour mission in this chamber. Part of this test mission build-up was the installation of some personal instrumentation to allow monitoring blood pressure, EKG, internal body temperature, etc. This testing is supposed to both prove the suit and the confidence in the equipment to the pilot. The body temperature is measured by an inserted anal probe. Well, about halfway thru the first test, I somehow expelled the probe...................So the test was rescheduled for the next day..

I told them that they must secure the probe to prevent its expulsion, use duct tape or anything but let's not do this test again!! We got the test done and I got to go home to fly my new suits. David Clark made two suits for me, one with white outer garment and one with silver outer garment. They were both well made and comfortable. A couple times in the period I flew the A-12, I experienced loss of cabin pressure and this was when the suit inflated quickly, saving my day!

Suit Training:

Some suit training was done at Area 51 for the Project pilots. The Base swimming pool was the scene of some "dunk" training. This was done to acquaint the pilot in the steps required to safely arrive/live when coming down in water. This involved jumping off the diving board with a full survival kit attached to the pilot/suit. A few "dunks" were needed to fill this square. Getting into the water with the full kit is a busy thing if you want to survive. We all learned these lessons...................

Next came the Parasail Training...

Sometimes, I think the Parasail training was designed to kill off the Project Pilots to avoid paying them!!

Someone in higher places decided that the Project pilots should be instructed in the use if the survival kit and parachute handling in the full pressure suit. This is not easily done anywhere, but when you combine the limited ability and the reluctance of some of the pilots.......You see problems pretty soon.. Some of the pilots did this with minimal problems.....I was not one of those!!!

The decided scene for this training was Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. The attempts to get the pilot up with full gear was tried with some Detachment people's personal watercraft, that was not successful. Then the Coast Guard detachment at Lake Mead Base were coerced into using their more powerful launches. This is when the whole idea got interesting.

The main idea was to use a boat to tow a pilot connected to a Parasail up to a height sufficient for a parachute ride to the lake surface. All this with the pilot in full pressure suit complete with attached survival kit from the rocky beach into the air over the beach, then he was to release the tow line, deploy his survival kit and land in the Lake.. This training tried to kill Jack Layton and me. Both attempts failed!! I remember being drug thru the beach gravel, then into the water with a collapsed parasail chute.. The launch finally got me up just before I resigned from the program. Layton suffered through a submarine experience where his suit filled with water while being drug under water. Not much fun!!

This phase of training not very well thought out, more hazard than gain I think!! But we all lived through this, so another square got filled. We only did this one time!!

Other stuff!!

MurrayNight flying was a challenging thing, not because the A-12 flies differently just because it's dark......But the challenge was caused by the fact that the lights outside the helmet visor reflected back onto the instrument glasses, sorta like flying inside a Kaleidoscope. The pressure (clear) visor had a coating on it that made it into a mirror to the lights installed on the cockpit instruments. We didn't do much night flying in the pressure suit so the problem was minimized. Night flying the A-12 could be done if moving the airplane to an operational base was required. Night movement was never done. Floodlighting, rather than individual instrument lighting would have helped solve the dilemma. This might have been planned but was not done as I remember. One thing I do remember about night flying in the A-12 is the beautiful sight of the afterburner plumes, that are visible through the canopy periscope. These plumes are bright blue and look longer than the airplane at Mach 3+ at high altitude. Another good thing I can remember about night flying the A-12 happened when the airplane was descended low enough to open the visor for the approach and landing, this usually at about 15000' above ground level. No Kaleidoscope experience there. The Project Pilots flew the A-12 Trainer (124) routinely on Monday nights, mainly for refueling practice. After the initial Pilot training, which was done in the Pressure Suit, the routine weekly night flying was done in the normal flying suits, not Pressure Suits. In the last year of the Program, the Project Pilots didn't need much more training so the usual sortie was flown with one Project Pilot in the front seat and one of the Military Staff people in the back seat, similarly we had the time and opportunity to fly the staff guys during day flights. We often put the staff pilot in one of our Pressure Suits to give him the experience the OXCART pilot did routinely. I had the pleasure of taking some of the guys up for their first Supersonic experience. I cherish those memories. They probably do too!!

One other thing comes to mind. Sorta demonstrates the environment in the A-12 at the end-cruise segment of a flight. I was scheduled to fly a routine functional check flight (FCF). I suited up and was driven to the A-12 Hangars. When the crew van arrived the A-12 was not quite ready for flight, so I started playing Tic-Tac-Toe with the suit tech that accompanied me to the Hangar. The crew van was equipped with the Tic-Tac-Toe board and some grease pencils to mark the board. Pretty soon the crew chief signaled the crew van that the airplane was ready to board for the flight. So I quit my game, put the grease pencil in a leg pencil pocket and got about the test flight............You gotta know what happened!!

At the end of the test flight, probably about 85000' at Mach 3.2, the cabin temp got up to 140+ degrees.

After I landed, the suit techs found that the grease pencil "lead" had melted in the suit pocket. This smudge was on my suit to the end of the program. Just one of those things that happened "along the way"

There was no developed provisions for body waste disposal in/on the pressure suit. For the most part the missions were about five hours or less in duration, so food and drink intake was controlled pre-mission to avoid problems. Part of mission buildup was to prescribe a low residue diet and low gas making foods intake..(beans, cabbage etc) I rather liked the steak and eggs menu. I had one "accident" while flying the A-12. On an over flight mission I was stricken with a dysentery syndrome, not noticed before the sortie. I could not control or hold, so I let fly in the suit about an hour before landing. By the time I landed I had a pretty bad case of diaper rash. At deplaning, the poor suit tech unlocked the helmet lock ring and was gassed by what came out of the suit. Won't repeat what he had to say about that!! I never smelled that since the face dam separates the torso air from the Oxygen the pilot breathes.. Good thing!!

The Best Part!!

The everyday operational use of the A-12 required the reliability afforded by the Pressure Suits used by both the Lockheed Test pilots and the CIA OXCART pilots. I don't know of a single suit failure in my time on the Project. Testament to the good people at David Clark Company. The day to day maintenance and operational support of the Pressure suits was accomplished by the Project's Life Support Division, an Air Force team of Officers and enlisted men assisted by David Clark and Firewel contractor technicians who were assigned to the Life Support Division. Suit Up of the Project Pilots was the responsibility of the Air Force team. The David Clark techs were primarily responsible for the Suit Up of the Lockheed Test Pilots.

Consummate professionals all!! God love those people.

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