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I notice that fighter pilots wear helmets, although pilots of aircraft like C-130s do not. What is the purpose of this?

I have heard that it could be helpful in the event of an ejection, but considering the explosive force of an ejection, if you hit your head I would be surprised if a helmet made any difference.

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    $\begingroup$ What if: (a) shrapnel hit the aircraft; (b) the pilot hit his/her head BEFORE he/she ejects; (c) the pilot hit his/her head AFTER he/she ejects. There are a lot of events an helmet comes in handy whe flying a tactical aircraft... $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 13:24
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    $\begingroup$ Some ejection systems only fracture the window, not jettison the canopy. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ When ejecting at high speed, having a helmet with full face mask is handy protection once the pilot is in the free air stream - who know what parts of plane debris or incoming ammo (s)he might encounter. It's a handy way of distributing the weight of the headset & O2 mask around the entire head. Its a good place to display HUD information (newest of new systems, only). They look cool. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ For combat missions and for high-altitude drops when the crew needs to be on oxygen, C-130 pilots wear helmets too. But for routine, pressurized (or low altitude) flights, headsets are more comfortable. But for anybody sitting on an ejection seat, helmets it is -- take any advantage you can during one of those! $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ It's possible after an ejection that the pilot isn't conscious. Might be good to protect the noggin after he falls over when hitting the ground. $\endgroup$
    – Steve
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 17:09

5 Answers 5

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There are several reasons:

  1. A helmet provides head protection. A fighter airplane can make many sudden turns and a helmet provides reduction of the risk of a head injury.

  2. If the pilot needs to eject the airplane, helmet is needed to protect from wind blast, in addition to what I mentioned #1.

  3. Helmets play an important role in noise attenuation.

  4. The mic and headphones are mounted in the helmet.

  5. Many helmets contain a sun visor, hence the pilot does not require to use sunglasses.

  6. Modern helmets have a mounted display, night vision support. The latest ones help to see the pilot in any direction they desire, and even through the airplane.

  7. Oxygen supply mask can be directly mounted to the helmet.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think it would be worth mentioning the issue of shrapnel protection mentioned in other answers. $\endgroup$
    – Notts90
    Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ Or the more mundane loose object during negative G maneuver $\endgroup$
    – Antzi
    Commented Nov 13, 2017 at 4:50
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In addition to ejection it's to protect the pilot's head from impacts against the inside of the cockpit in case of sudden maneuvering or loss of control. Many aerobatic pilots wear helmets for this reason as well.

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Primarily to protect the pilot's head from windblast and and trauma from blunt object impact in the event of an ejection and parachute landing. The current generation helmets do not offer ballistic protection against enemy fire

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There was at least one case when a helmet saved a helicopter pilot's life, namely a RAF's Chinook HC4 pilot. In short, Flight Lieutenant Ian Fortune was injured while extracting some soldiers in Afganistan. An enemy bullet basically struck his helmet above the upper rim, crushing it and sending parts of the helmet and visor into his face, but nevertheless saving his life and leaving him more or less operational and conscious.

Fun fact: the helicopter he was flying, serial number ZA718, has enough stories to tell to have his own nickname and Wikipedia page :).

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Keep in mind that a pilot can eject at 500kts+, or possibly even supersonic.

The helmet and faceplate keeps the pilot's face from being seriously damaged by high speed airflow. Helmet also protects the pilot's skull if they strike the seat after separation, or when they impact the ground... same purpose as a motorcycle helmet... the human skull can be fractured by as little as a 15mph impact, and head injuries tend to be more serious (or fatal) than similar impacts elsewhere on the body.

Today, the helmet also doubles as a HUD mount, with the faceplate being the screen. In the F35, the helmet/HUD combination is reported to cost over $400k, but it does give the pilot to 'see' through the aircraft... tracking opponents that would otherwise be blocked from the pilot's view.

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  • $\begingroup$ If somebody ejected at supersonic speed the helmet would just increase the chance of having their head ripped off. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 4, 2018 at 2:53

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