Why the Air Force is on a mission to fix its uniforms
The U.S. Air Force for months has been working to redesign gear and flight suits used by female pilots after many years of ill-fitting equipment.
But why stop there? It's also updating current flight suit and gear designs to improve comfort and ease of wear, according to officials working on the project. At the same time, officials want to streamline and expedite the process of shipping these uniforms and support gear anywhere across the world to meet a unit's requirement.
Since his tenure in the Air Force, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has called for improved, better-fitting uniforms — not only for comfort, but also for safety.
"We have women performing in every combat mission, and we owe it to them to have gear that fits, is suited for a woman's frame and can be [worn] for hours on end," Goldfein told reporters at a Defense Writers Group in Washington, D.C. last year.
Capt. Lauren Kram, assigned to the 13th Bomb Squadron, poses for a portrait on Feb. 19, 2019.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kayla White)
Officials have been eager to create and field uniforms and flight equipment with better fit and performance, and make them more readily available for female aircrew, said Maj. Saily Rodriguez, the female fitment program manager for the human systems program office.
The problem for decades has been limited sizes, which has resulted in female airmen tailoring their own flight suits, or just wearing a suit too tight or too loose.
Rodriguez and her team have been tasked to "specifically ... look at how the female body is shaped," with a goal of "tailoring that flight suit to be able to accommodate the female shape," she said in an interview with Military.com Thursday.
The project was launched within the Air Force Lifecycle Management Center, with Rodriguez focused on the female perspective for better-fitted uniforms and gear.
"Everything that touches an aircrew member's body, we manage in the program office," she said. That includes everything from flight vests; G-suits, which prevents the loss of consciousness during high levels of acceleration or gravity pressure; helmets; boots; and intricate gear such as bladder relief apparatus.
Participants of the Female Flight Equipment Workshop demonstrate the issues women face with the current survival vests at AFWERX Vegas, Las Vegas, Jan. 30, 2019.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Bailee A. Darbasie)
Some improvements have been made already. In November 2018, the service began delivering upgraded Aircrew Mission Extender Devices, also known as AMXDmax, for bladder relief. The device collects urine in a cup for men and a pad for women, and can hold 1.7 quarts of urine, according to the service. The Air Force said it had expected to deliver roughly 2,000 to crews service-wide by the end of this month.
Beyond female flight equipment, the office is gearing up for improved uniforms and devices for all.
"We're going to be adding on what's called the 'combat-ready airman,'" Rodriguez said, "which is going to look at more roles than just aircrew members to ensure that those airmen, men and women, are being outfitted in standardized uniforms as well, that suit their need to be able to properly do their duties they're assigned."
Officials are still defining what a 'combat-ready airman' is, but the term eventually will "encompass the larger Air Force" beyond aviators, she said. As an example, work has begun on better-fitting vests for female security forces airmen.
"It all comes down to making sure that airmen have gear that they can use and ... perform their missions," Rodriguez said.
Getting uniforms Amazon-quick
On the shipment management side, leaders are using the Battlefield Airmen Rapid Resource Replenishment System, or BARS, a central equipment hub that sorts various gear and can ship the clothing directly to airmen across the globe.
The system was created to quickly field resources to deployed airmen, such as Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) airmen, pararescue and special tactics operations in Air Force Special Operations Command, said Todd Depoy, the special warfare branch chief for the special operations forces and personnel recovery division within Air Force Life Cycle Management Center. Gear ranges from scuba gear to climbing equipment, Depoy said.
An HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter, assigned to the 66th Rescue Squadron, flies during training on Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Feb. 22, 2018.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Kevin Tanenbaum)
"BARS is a cloud-based software program ... with [an additional] inventory control," Depoy told Military.com. The program has been around a little over a year, he added.
The internal system, created and hosted by Amazon, gives individuals the authority to head to a computer and mark what they need and have it shipped over — with the proper military approvals, Depoy said.
"There is a checkpoint, but if they need something, they can go in and order it, and those items are on the shelf," he said.
The items are stored and managed by the Air Force at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana.
Unlike in years past where it could take months to get gear overseas, it now takes between a few days and a few weeks, depending on the location, Depoy said.
The goal now is to speed up the existing process for men's gear, and implement a similar one for female flight suits.
"BARS is an existing system, but I'm currently adding our ACC female aviators into the system," said Shaunn Hummel, the aircrew flight equipment program analyst at Air Combat Command's A3TO training and operations office.
Lately, Hummel has been working to add female flight suits, jackets, boots and glove to the list of available gear in the system. His job is to work with the Defense Logistics Agency to appropriately stock facilities so airmen can access items via BARS.
In September 2018, ACC made a bulk buy of roughly $1 million worth of these items, Hummel said.
Capt. Christine Durham (left), Pilot Training Next instructor pilot, gives a briefing to her students prior to a training mission at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Austin, Texas, Feb. 5, 2019.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Sean M. Worrell)
"We're working with DLA to try and decrease the lead time and increase productivity for the manufacturing of these suits," Hummel said April 16, 2019. Female flight suits "are not manufactured all the time until there is a consistent demand of them."
Hummel explained there are 110 different flight suits — between the "women" category, for curvier women, and the "misses" category, for those with slimmer builds — and they also have different zipper configurations.
Zippers have been a problem for men as well as women. Very tall or very short airmen may find their zippers ill-placed to relieve themselves conveniently, the service said in a recent release.
"We're making sure we're using data ... to assess what are the sizes we need to get women outfitted" by cross-referencing stockpiles through the various offices, Rodriguez added.
Right now, the teams are working together to get more feedback on how the programs are working, and what else could be done to improve standard gear to keep pilots and aircrew safe in flight.
The service has held several collaborative "Female Flight Equipment Workshops," the release said.
Rodriguez said it wants more airmen speaking up.
"We have an effort underway looking at how we can streamline feedback from the user ... so that we can use it when we're looking for improvements in the future," she said.
This article originally appeared on Military.com. Follow @militarydotcom on Twitter.
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