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Under Pressure

10/01/14

Like a cross between vintage scuba gear, a baseball catcher’s uniform, and a straight jacket, aviator Wiley Post’s pressure suit, designed for him in collaboration with BF Goodrich (that’s right, the tire guys), was something of a revelation back in the mid-1930s, when Post was making stratospheric flights in airplanes before the dawn of cabin pressurization.

While we’re more inclined to complain about spotty, overpriced WiFi and really terrible food on airplanes these days, we often take for granted the basic advances in technology that make flying through the air watching back-to-back Nicolas Cage movies on the way to Europe possible—pressurization being one of them. Necessary at altitudes above 12,500 feet (think about 20 minutes into your trip out of JFK), pressurization prevents a whole host of physiological unpleasantries far more irritating than having to take your shoes off at the security checkpoint. Hypoxia (not enough oxygen to your lungs and brain), hyperventilation (a byproduct of altitude sickness), barotrauma (what happens to your crushed plastic water bottle is what’s happening to your insides): these are all just a few of the things that threaten both your comfort and your mere existence while traveling. Pressurization in planes basically tricks your body into thinking its hurtling through the sky at a livable altitude.

Wiley Post, however, did not have the advantage of in-flight entertainment or full-cabin pressurization. What he did have, however, was the aforementioned pressure suit. Made out of a double-ply rubberized parachute fabric exterior and inner suit of long underwear, the ensemble came equipped with pigskin gloves, rubber boots, and an aluminum diver’s helmet. Possessing something of an atomic man aesthetic, the outer layer was glued to a frame with joints at the arms and legs that afforded Post some movement. He did, after all, have to control the gears to fly the plane. All and all, the suit allowed Post to propel himself to 50k feet above sea level over the course of ten stratospheric flights taken between 1934 and 1935, discovering the jet stream as a result.

Ironically, it was not one of Post’s highest missions where the famed aviator would meet his demise. Upon takeoff from a lagoon in Alaska, flying a nose-heavy plane Post crafted himself out of cobbled-together parts from two salvaged aircrafts, the pilot, along with American humorist Will Rogers, plunged back into the lagoon after the engine struggled to make headway at low altitude, killing them both. 

Clothes can make the man, but mechanics and engineering conquers all.