Navy, Marines Measuring Thousands of Aircrew to Improve Fit
Much of today’s flight gear is based on data that doesn’t match the current aircrew population.
For nearly half of her Navy career, Lt. Jennifer Knapp has worn boots that didn’t fit—because her size wasn’t kept in stock. They would have been “a disaster” if she was in a situation where she had to tread water to survive, she said.
“I haven't had to have that situation, of course. But that's kind of how grave that can get if I didn't have gear that fits. So, directly affecting our safety and survival capabilities,” said Knapp, a former naval flight officer on the E-6B Mercury aircraft.
Knapp is now providing that experience as the military liaison for a new study of Navy and Marine aviators and air crew members. The U.S. Naval and Marine Corps Aircrew Anthropometric Survey is collecting body measurements to improve the fit and availability of equipment used by naval aircrews—from flight suits and gloves to oxygen masks and harnesses, as well as the design of the cockpit.
The last time the Navy did a study of this kind was in 1964, and that did not include data from women or minorities, according to a service press release. Since then, the Navy has relied on data that does not exactly reflect the current population using the equipment, said Lori Brattin Basham, the principal investigator for the anthropometric study, based at Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division in Patuxent River, Maryland.
“So our options have been to basically try to pull a subset that we hope will represent our aircrew population from an Army general-population database. And it's not just the Navy that's been doing that, other services have tried to do that, too,” Brattin Basham said. “What we really need is to have our own population data so we can do [a] better job of coming up with sizing for clothing and equipment, but also having the things in stock that are needed.”
The study costs $1.9 million, which Brattin Basham said is lower than might be expected, in part because the Navy is doing it themselves.
The service is recruiting Navy and Marine Corps aircrew for the study at several bases across the country through the end of the year. The goal is to gather a representative sample size of 4,400 people; the team gathered data from 55 people at its first event at Patuxent River last month. The next event will be in Quantico, Virginia.
“All United States Navy and Marine Corps aircrew are invited to participate, including commissioned and enlisted women and men. We're emphasizing the importance of women and minority groups, to include anyone over the age of 25, to ensure that we're accurately representing these bins that haven't been previously represented well in the past,” Knapp said. “So every single person counts, we're not just trying to single out any one demographic.”
The researchers are also making note of the population makeup of each location, so they can stock the correct equipment where it’s needed. While they won’t have exact population numbers because those are always changing, “it's going to give us a much better idea of, if we assume we only have 20 women, but we actually have 1,000 located somewhere, we [could] actually influence the availability in those locations,” Knapp said.
The Navy also wants to study people who don’t meet current size requirements for air crew jobs, so it can use the data to design more inclusive equipment that could expand the pool of aviation recruits.
“We're going to screen those people to see if—figure out the people in that group that cannot get into the training pipeline, but go ahead and take their anthro and characterize them,” Brattin Basham said. “And that is now going to be our new target for future acquisition. So we'll create new acquisition requirements from this data.”
Knapp is urging people to participate, because “results from this study affect all of us currently serving, as well as future aviators who want to fly [in] the Navy and Marine Corps. Every single measurement counts, and we need participation to ensure the data accurately represents the current aircrew population, and can address these gear fit and size deficits.”
Participants fill out questionnaires and are measured head to toe by a team of nine researchers, both manually and with a 3D scanner called PassFit, which can “extract [Department of Defense] standardized anthropometry,” Brattin Basham said. The whole process takes less than an hour.
While most people are familiar with height and weight standards, four of the measurements taken in the study are the ones Brattin Basham said are more commonly causing eligibility issues: sitting height, sitting-eye height, buttock-to-knee length, and the length from shoulder to thumb tip.
The thumbtip reach measurement is “a functional measurement,” Brattin Basham said, noting that “there's some controls that require the thumb and the index finger to manipulate.”
Brattin Basham said researchers will analyze the data in early 2024, after the scans are collected, and publish their report as soon as possible on the Defense Technical Information Center website.
“There's several acquisition programs that are … already all in touch with me and wanting to work with me. I'm involved in ongoing meetings because they want to be able to use this data the second it's available,” she said.
One challenge is that the face scans, useful for fitting equipment such as oxygen masks, must be protected because of privacy concerns, Brattin Basham said. The researchers are working with the University of Michigan to create avatars so they can still use the facial data.
“It's one thing for us to publish a tech report that's got a bunch of anthro measurements on the face in it, but there's also shape to consider, not just the independent measurements. So we are working on that and figuring out how we can protect privacy for the face scans,” she said. “But everything else is de-identified and we—it's meaningless if we don't get it out there for everybody to use, so we definitely want to make it available.”