Bone Dome Myth Busting: The Safety of Helmets in Aviation

September 17, 1908, at Fort Myer Virginia, Lt. Thomas Selfridge embarked as a passenger with the famed Orville Wright in his Wright flyer. Sadly however, this would also be the day Selfridge became the first-ever fatality as a result of an aeroplane crash. Selfridge died of head injuries and it was concluded that had he been wearing any form of head protection he would have most likely survived the accident. As a result, from that day forward, head protection has been a major part of military aviation not only in the U.S but the majority of the world.

The accident that killed Lt. Thomas Selfridge and injured Orville Wright.

So if the first fatality in an aircraft was a result of a head injury only five years after the first-ever flight, does that make us slow learners in the Civil Aviation world? I would not for a moment suggest that helmets should be made compulsory, but should more pilots at least consider including the use of a helmet in their day to day operations? Should helmets be more normalized in general and recreational aviation? I personally believe so. In the U.S, data collected by the U.S Health Information systems shows that on average head injury’s are the second most common non-fatal form of injury sustained in aircraft accidents at 11%. However, in terms of fatalities, they are by far the biggest killer with a whopping 38% of all aircraft accident-related deaths being a direct result of a head injury. A study conducted by the Alaska region of the FAA in 2010 found that of the 97 accidents involving fatal or serious injury between 2004 and 2009, 33 lives would most likely have been saved through the use of helmets.

I have been a big advocate for the use of helmets in all aviation activities for some time now. My choice to start wearing and promoting flight helmets stemmed from a 3 week period some years ago where 5 friends in various locations around the world all had accidents in which the only injuries sustained were head injuries. While I fully respect anyone’s choice to wear a helmet or not it has had me absolutely amazed me over the years some of the counter-arguments people have given me against the use of helmets. So let's address some of the arguments I hear the most and put forward some food for thought to think about.

“Helmets do nothing in a real crash beyond preserving your head for an open casket.”

In January 2020 I was on the scene when one of my closest friends was involved in a runway loss of control accident where the ultralight aircraft cartwheeled and made contact with a tree. Somehow during the accident, he managed to slump over the passenger seat and his head got wedged between the seat and the thin fibreglass door right where the tree impacted the fuselage, his head taking the full force of the impact. Knocked unconscious and unable to breathe, had people not been on-site to remove the aircraft off the tree and free his head and airways this accident would without question have been a fatality. As it was he had to be airlifted and had an extremely extensive recovery. This was a result of an accident with an impact speed at most of 30 knots Comparatively on the 1st December 2017 an M-18A Dromader had a high-speed impact with the ground tearing the aircraft to pieces and coming to rest 30 m from where it impacted the ground. The pilots head impacted the cockpit of the aircraft with what should have been a lethal force, however with the helmet taking the full blow of the incident the pilot walked away with only minor injuries.

“Wearing a helmet will scare my passengers.”

Ultimately if possible, it would be Ideal to have helmets for both yourself and your passengers, and with much more affordable and widely adjustable helmets on the market these days it is much more an option than it has been in the past. However, I believe that if your passenger is going to be concerned by a pilot in command wearing a helmet then they are quite likely to be concerned about most things relating to flight in a light aircraft. It can easily be pointed out to passengers that a PIC wearing a helmet actually increases passenger safety as in the event of an emergency if the PIC can maintain consciousness he can further attend to all onboard to ensure their safety. A few years ago I had a friend who’s aircraft was lifted and flipped as a result of wake turbulence. On impact with the ground, the aircraft immediately burst into flames, thankfully in this case despite hitting his head very hard he was not knocked out and was able to free both his passenger and himself from the aircraft before receiving any significant injuries. Had he hit his head any harder at all or in a slightly different position both pilot and passenger would have burnt to death, if however either pilot or passenger had been wearing a helmet the risk of being knocked unconscious would have been removed altogether and there would have been no doubt one could have tended to and freed the other.

Anyone can wear a helmet!

”Helmets are only for aerobatics, low-level and STOL aircraft. Not for touring aircraft.”

While all these forms of flying come with a heightened risk, speaking as a STOL pilot myself this one has always had me a bit puzzled. In the event of an accident, the occupants are likely at greater risk in a touring type aircraft than I am in my STOL aircraft. Using an engine failure as an example, many feel they are safer when cruising along as they have height on their side. However, while this gives the pilot more time to try and rectify the situation, having height does not mean the pilot will have a successful smooth landing and it will not be till the lower altitudes that the pilot will be able to truly identify the suitability of where they have chosen to land anyway. A person flying a STOL type aircraft has the luxury of being able to fly at the same higher altitudes in the cruise and will generally even at low-level have many more suitable options available to them as to where to land the aircraft safely. I see more and more now pilots flying with the “magenta line syndrome” where they tend to just follow a line on a screen instead of forward planning taking them over terrain with no options. In this case, a typical cruising type aircraft should it be forced to go into terrain such as trees will do so carrying far more energy than a STOL type aircraft, often in a far less robust airframe. Furthermore whatever the terrain the aircraft finds itself in, even a runway loss of control incident, should the aircraft find itself on its back the low wing, particularly bubble canopy type aircraft we see only getting more and more popular these days put the pilot and passengers of an aircraft at the greatest risk of head injury of all. So while certain types of flying may have a higher chance of an accident generally, that does not mean other types of flying are at lower risk of head injury specifically.

Chuck Yeager wearing a helmet in 1948.

“You wouldn’t wear a helmet in a car, why would you in a plane?”

This is a very true statement, however, cars generally have a far stronger construction than aircraft. While we are starting to see a lot of amazing safety technology coming into aircraft these days, comparatively to the large majority of aircraft in Australian skies today cars carry a lot more safety equipment such as ABS, crumple zones and airbags. The majority of time spent in our vehicles is generally travelling at speeds slower than the take-off and approach speeds of many aircraft, and when at high speeds we will often be travelling on roads also equipped with further safety equipment such as wire rope barriers.

“Helmets are hot, uncomfortable, and noisy.”

This really is up to each individual to judge for themselves, however, don’t presume this without trying a range of helmets for yourself as that is what I did for many years only to discover that most people telling me this had never tried a helmet for themselves. I personally find my helmet substantially more comfortable than my aviation headsets, and that most problems relating to comfort will generally be a result of a helmet not fitted properly, helmets come in a range of sizes and have further padding adjustment to suit each individual. I also find my helmet offers far better noise protection than any headset I have tried even without my ANR turned on. I have flown with my helmet year-round in the tropics and western desert and have never for a moment found it to be in any way hot. Remember that some of the biggest users of aviation helmets in Australia are mustering and Ag pilots who will wear their helmets year-round in some of the hottest climates of all.

“Helmets are ridiculously expensive.”

Article author and Ep 5 guest, Tim Howes wearing his helmet.

It is certainly no lie that helmets can cost a small fortune, and you really do get what you pay for in a helmet. The more expensive helmets such as the MSA Gallet, Gentex and Alpha Eagles truly do offer an unmatched degree of protection, while also being packed full of all the bells and whistles, If those helmets do fall in your price bracket then I strongly recommend going that way. However these days there are a lot of cheaper options coming onto the market for not a lot more than most of the ever-popular blue tooth headsets. They are still incredibly comfortable, offer the addition of ANR and Bluetooth options while having a far higher degree of protection against head injury than a headset ever will. I use a PilotX helmet from Bone Head composites which in Australia will set you back in the vicinity of $2200. However if you already have a headset you really like you can get a Sky Cowboys helmet for around $785 which can be adapted to take most major headset manufactures including Bose, Lightspeed and David Clark. These are also a great option for passenger helmets as they have a wide range of adjustment to fit most head sizes.

So next time you go to buy a headset, no matter what it is you fly just take a few minutes to weigh up the pros and cons of both a helmet and a conventional headset. I suggest to a lot of people a game of top trumps between the 2 devices. You may just find the price difference of a couple of hours aircraft hire being the difference of you coming home one day or not.

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