US Army designs protective suit for paratroopers

Smokejumper dodges trees to perform a soft landing in a field. (Photo courtesy of the United States Forest Service)

By Jane Benson, DEVCOM Soldier Center Public Affairs, US Army

NATICK, Mass. — Some heroes wear capes and others wear suits designed by the US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center, or DEVCOM SC.

American smokejumpers literally plunge into danger. They are an elite group of firefighters who parachute into remote areas to put out forest fires. They need and deserve the best equipment to do their job safely and efficiently. DEVCOM SC’s Design, Models and Prototypes team within the Directorate of Soldier Protection took on the task of updating the suits that smokers wear when jumping in to put out wildfires .

“The off-road suit is worn by smokejumpers working for the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service and the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management,” said Patti Bigrig, a clothing designer from the Design, Pattern & Prototype, or DPPT team. “There are about 400 to 500 smokejumpers in the United States. Their mission is to parachute into remote areas, where vehicles do not have access, to put out forest fires.

Zach Glover, one of the smokejumpers who helped DEVCOM SC verify the fit and integration of the new and improved off-road suit, explained that the suit is used to protect smokejumpers from any type of impalement from branches of trees and has a built-in deception system if they get caught in a tree. The suit also adds fire protection.

Glover appreciates the opportunity for smokejumpers to contribute to the new prototype. “The new suit will improve mobility, be lighter and allow for better protection, range of motion and freedom of movement,” Glover said.

This effort corresponds perfectly to the expertise of DEVCOM SC. “DEVCOM SC’s long-term expertise in developing garments to meet Warfighter needs benefits this project in every aspect,” said DPPT Team Leader Annette LaFleur.

“We not only look at the musculoskeletal structure and movement of the human body as part of a garment, but also how the necessary equipment works cohesively with the garment to enhance performance and mission success. “, said Bigrig. “We listen to the user to find out what is not working and find a solution.”

DPPT is adept at designing specific job functions and specialties – whether it is a protective suit for a fuel handler or a bomb suit for an explosive ordnance disposal operator or a new suit all terrain for paratroopers. On a daily basis, the team works to meet the needs of Warfighters and other users by translating user requirements into tangible prototypes. Prototypes incorporate materials and features to meet specific user needs. For the off-road suit, the prototype includes padding with appropriate impact protection, as well as flame-retardant base materials.

“The team starts by sketching out design options, discussing ideas with the user before drafting patterns and sewing the first prototype,” LaFleur said. “We design, test and validate, ensuring the item is tested and approved by the user. We don’t want the user to have to think or be overwhelmed by their clothing or gear. If they focus only on their mission, we know that we have done our job well.

The Prototype Rough Terrain Suit includes feature and material improvements.

“Due to the natural rough terrain these skydivers are entering, the current suit has a short lifespan,” Bigrig said. “The current suit is Kevlar, which has high puncture resistance but very low abrasion resistance. It requires repair or replacement fairly frequently. Kevlar is sensitive and weakened by exposure to sunlight, and this factor also plays into a shorter life expectancy.The goal of this new suit is to increase durability, protection and extend the life of its use.

Melynda Perry, a textile chemist with DEVCOM SC’s Textile Materials Evaluation Team, performed tests on the current suit material and suggested some materials to incorporate into the new suit. The new suit features two layers – a base layer and a more abrasion resistant layer. The aim is to identify lighter materials with better abrasion resistance that contain less aramid fibers to provide better protection against UV exposure, thus extending the life of the suit.

smokejumper jumpsuit
The US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center, or DEVCOM SC, has designed an all-terrain suit for smoke bombers. (David Kamm, SC DEVCOM)

The new prototype suit also features an improved collar and integrated impact resistant foam. It also includes an adjustable side pocket at the bottom of the suit’s pants. The pocket is used to hold the rope and other equipment.

Bigrig conceived the idea of ​​the adjustable pocket and Chong Whitfield, a DPPT production designer, refined the idea. Being able to adjust the pockets helps improve safety.

“It’s the Goldilocks pocket,” Bigrig said. “You can adjust it to be fair.”

User input, which plays a key role in all of DEVCOM SC’s product development, drives the design of the new suit.

“We had a lot of conversations with the smokejumpers and gleaned some great insights into how we could turn this suit into something that would dramatically improve what they currently had,” Bigrig said. “It’s a wonderful relationship because we adapted the design to the feedback we received.”

Prior to working with DPPT, smokejumpers already had a good working relationship with DEVCOM SC’s airdrop team, which is part of the Soldier Sustainment Directorate. This relationship led the smokejumpers to seek out DPPT.

“We watched videos of their donning and doffing process, deployment from the plane as well as the five-point landing procedure,” Bigrig said. “We had a lot of conversations with the smokejumpers and gleaned some great insights into how we could turn this suit into something that would dramatically improve what they currently had.”

Other DEVCOM SC teams also participated in the effort. Bigrig explained that the DPPT leveraged the expertise of Chuck Hewitt of DEVCOM SC’s Ballistic and Blast team to test impact-resistant materials to incorporate into the suit. Perry was also instrumental in testing and providing recommendations on the best materials for the new suit.

“There are people here who are experts in their field,” Glover said. “They are experts in design, textiles, blunt impact ballistics and parachutes. We are firefighters and paratroopers first and working with these experts is really beneficial for us.

Bigrig is proud to work with the smokejumpers on the new rough terrain suit.

“The users are firefighters with a high degree of ingenuity, and we’re honored to help them take the suit to the next level,” Bigrig said.


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