Corky suits up NASA’s “Dragon Lady” pilots
Pilots flying NASA’s ER-2 “Dragon Lady” aircraft need pressure. Not that flying the ER-2 isn’t pressure enough since the aircraft is flown within a narrow performance regime when at altitude, lest the aircraft lose control and disintegrate.
The near space altitudes where the ER-2 operates have peculiar and non-intuitive physics at play, though, and pressure suits are required for three primary reasons:
- Skin, among other services, effectively has the human body become a gas bag—without sufficient external pressure the skin will become twice its size making the pilot look like a weightlifter on mega steroids and all but eliminating mobility
- Without external pressure at these high altitudes (~70,000 feet) the lungs cannot breathe, even when the pilot is on 100% oxygen, to sustain life. Airline cruise altitudes, should decompression occur, have the lungs also unable to sufficiently breathe and blackouts will occur within seconds—explaining why the instructions are to place your oxygen mask on first! Next aid your child or neighbor (as holding breath isn’t physically possible and would cause lung rupture should the aircraft be placed into a rapid descent if it were)
- Fully pressurizing the ER-2 would undermine its aerodynamics as well as incur more of a weight penalty than pressurizing the pilot (the cockpit at mission altitude is pressurized to the equivalent of 29,000 feet)
Enter “Corky” Cortes—Flight Suit Technician for NASA as well as for other exploration elite (high altitude balloonist Steve Fossett, for example). These pressure suits, made by the David Clark Company, are vital as well as integral to flying ER-2 missions and weigh in at about 30 pounds. Failure at altitude assuredly incurs loss of the aircraft and pilot, as well as whatever they eventually crash upon, so no detail is insignificant. Much like helicopters, there are no small problems with pressure suits. Corky has earned his well-respected reputation and has the complete faith of NASA’s ER-2 pilots. His work is vital to NASA’s ER-2 mission success.
Our thanks to Nicholas Veronico for allowing use of his images 🙂