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Corky suits up NASA’s “Dragon Lady” pilots

29 February 2016


Corky Cortes (Life Support Technician/NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center) checking a flight suit used on the ER-2 "Dragonlady" Nick Veronico image 2016

Raul “Corky” Cortes (NASA Flight Suit Technician) inspects the pressure suit made by the David Clark Co. for NASA’s Lockheed ER-2 “Dragon Lady” pilots—Nicholas Veronico image ©2016

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)
Raul "Corky" Cortes (NASA Flight Suit Technician)—Nicholas Veronico image ©2016

Raul “Corky” Cortes (NASA Flight Suit Technician) inflates a pressure suit as part of his inspection protocol (note the large green thigh Velcro patch and pocket on the left leg for keeping needed things handy)—Nicholas Veronico image ©2016

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.

blog ER-2 IMG_3974

Raul “Corky” Cortes (NASA Flight Suit Technician) ensures the feeding system functions (yes, squeezing food and fluids is the way since the helmet cannot be opened at mission altitudes)—Nicholas Veronico image ©2016

Raul "Corky" Cortes (NASA Flight Suit Technician)—Nicholas Veronico image ©2016

Raul “Corky” Cortes (NASA Flight Suit Technician) gives attention to the pressure suit’s helmet (note the patches, pockets and fittings required for flights of several hours at altitudes nearing 70,000 feet)—Nicholas Veronico image ©2016

Pilot in a flight suit in prep for a mission in an ER-2 "Dragon Lady"—NASA image

Pilot Tim Williams sits ready in his pressure suit for another ER-2  “Dragon Lady”mission—NASA image

Our thanks to Nicholas Veronico for allowing use of his images 🙂

2 Comments leave one →
  1. theflyingyorkshireman permalink
    29 February 2016 01:50

    Very interesting post, Joe. With only a single GE turbofan engine developing 17,000 lbs of thrust his latterday derivative of the Lockheed U-2 demonstrates amazing performance capabilities. Visit
    When we visited the Moffett Field facility some years ago we learned of the expensive diaper that had to be designed and produced for female NASA pilots!

    • travelforaircraft permalink
      29 February 2016 20:59

      Hello David and thanks. I could use one of those diapers at times! As part of the research I downloaded a book on pressure suit history, a U-2 flight manual and a better understanding of the evolution of the U-2 to the ER-2. More in later posts 😉

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