Our Pilots Don't "Black-out"
F/L W. A. SHIELDS
Our airmen’s flying stunned the Nazis . . . Two broken test tubes, a mouse and Dr. Franks' ingenuity helped us to achieve air superiority
WHEN the Allies landed at Oran, French North Africa, in the great amphibious operation of 1942 that marked “the end of the beginning,” the skies were filled with planes. Allied fighters were there in swarms, but they were carrierbased. The land-based Luftwaffe, though heavily outnumbered, must have thought for a while it had a fairly equal chance.
But not for long. To the Nazis it seemed that the British and American planes were piloted by Superman in person. They were doing feats of aerobatics that had never been seen before— twists and turns that were deemed impossible, because any pilot would “black out” if he tried them.
One RAF fighter plummeted 3,000 feet to get in a burst, then “pulled out” with a gut-wrenching swoop that should have left him unconscious for minutes— and kept on flying.
Another, in a dogfight with a Nazi fighter, turned inside him at unheard-of speed. The Nazi tried to follow suit. Next second the Nazi plane was tailspinning into the sea.
The reason why the Spitfires and Mustangs could go through manoeuvres that no Luftwaffe plane could follow has been one of the best-kept secrets of the war. It’s that the British and American fighter pilots wore a queer-looking outfit called the Franks Flying Suit. It was invented by Wing Commander W. R. Franks, O.B.E., of the RCAF, in peacetime a professor at the University of Toronto. It prevents the force of gravity from interfering with a pilot’s blood circulation in all high-speed manoeuvres—thus prevents the greatest threat to fast-flying pilots, “black-out.”
“Black-out” is the Air Force term for blindness, sometimes leading to unconsciousness, that is caused by centrifugal force m fast aircraft. Sharp changes of direction at high speeds—pull-outs from power dives or sudden twists and turns—multiply the effect of gravity on a pilot’s blood stream. They cause his blood to drain away from the brain and pool in his feet and legs. Result, he faints—“blacks out.”
Dr. Franks’ invention is a suit of nonstretchable fabric, interlined, in places, with rubber bladders which can be filled with fluid. Gravity and the centrifugal force of high speeds—“G,” Air Force scientists call it —will then act on the fluid in the suit as well as on the pilot’s blood stream. Centrifugal pressure on the fluid will neutralize or counteract the pressure on the blood, so that the fluid, by pressing on the “pools” of blood in the pilot’s feet and legs, forces the blood back up again to the heart.
Essentially the suit consists of three units. The inner suit contains the water pouches, one pouch placed against the inner calf and connected by a hose to another pouch on the front thigh and connected to a pouch on the lower abdomen. These pouches are placed next to the skin and then covered with a thin layer of rayon. This rayon is the second unit. The third unit is the nonstretchable fabric suit, which is tightly laced to the body. This outer unit transmits the pressure of the fluid in the pouches equally to all parts of the leg or lower body.
Since Dr. Franks first tested the suit more than 250 modifications have been made and the suit is still undergoing changes. One of the latest changes has been the use, in many cases, of air in the pouches instead of water.
However, the Navy uses only fresh water-filled suits. In case of emergency this water can be used for drinking.
On his recent return from England Dr. Franks explained that the enemy has copied some patterns of the suit ... “As a matter of fact,” he said, “that’s why news of the suit can be released.”
The Fleet Air Arm now is fully equipped with the
Franks Flying Suit, while other units use the suit if a specific job requires its use. Members of bomber crews are not required to wear the special antiblackout suits as their planes do not undertake those manoeuvres which are likely to induce “black-out.”
Franks’ Happy Thought
DEVELOPMENT of the Franks Flying Suit began in 1938, just at the time Chamberlain brought his umbrella home from Munich. Franks was then associate professor of medical research at the University of Toronto, with laboratories in the Banting Institute. Day after Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” speech, Sir Frederick Banting called his fellow workers together.
“We can’t take this,” he said. “War’s coming. We’d better start now to get ready.” So they decided to get in touch with the Canadian Army, Navy and Air I* orce and ask about their medical problems. Then they could decide what role the Banting Institute scientists should prepare to play when war came.
It was sheer coincidence, but that very day Franks hit upon the principle that later solved the prime problem of the Air Force, the “black-out” action of centrifugal force on fighter pilots. Dr. Franks at that time was working on cancer research. Twice he had broken test tubes filled with vaccine as he was whirling them at high speed in the laboratory centrifuge, one step in his tricky chemical proceas. He was worried when the first tube broke, fearing the vaccine might be active enough to cause cancer in anyone touching it. So he dumped the whole apparatus into nitric acid, destroying the results of six months’ patient work.
A glass company made him some heavier tubes, but again one of them broke under the pressure of centrifugal force. Again the dangerous fluid had to be rendered harmless, and more work was lost.
Then came a happy thought. Why not balance the pressure, inside and outside the test tubes, by floating them in water? Dr. Franks’ knowledge of physics told him that the pressure inside the tube, set up by centrifugal force, would be neutralized by the pressure outside. He tried out his idea, and it worked; he broke no more test tubes.
Later, when the RCAF indicated that “black-out” was a major concern because it limited a fighter pilot’s capacity for manoeuvre, Professor Franks remembered how he had stopped breakage of his test tubes. He came up with an important part of the answer right away.
“If the pilot could fly the aircraft while sitting immersed in a bathtub, he wouldn't black out.”
Professor Franks was pretty sure he was right so far. Pilots blacked out because centrifugal force drove blood away from the brain, pooled it in the legs and lower abdomen where the heart couldn’t reach it to pump it to the brain. The heart, though willing, was like a pump over a dry well. The thing was to do as he’d done with the test tube—surround the blood stream with another fluid, so that centrifugal pressure on it would neutralize the centrifugal pressure on the blood.
He tried his theory out on mice. He made little rubber suits that covered them all but head and tail. Then, on his laboratory centrifuge, he whirled them at terrific speeds, subjecting them to pulls of centrifugal force far higher than a man in an airplane would ever have to bear. The mice stood forces up to 250 “G,” got up and calmly walked away.
But obviously pilots couldn’t fly and fight in a bathtub,'or even in an oversized sausage full of water. The suit had to be made comfortable enough for everyday wear by fighter pilots sitting around dispersal huts. It had to be flexible enough to permit split-second movements in high-speed aircraft.
Dr. Franks was confident the principle was sound, but he realized that much work lay ahead in the realm of practical development. He talked the whole thing over with Banting and later with General Andrew G. L. McNaughton, then head of the National Research Council. General McNaughton made a special trip to Toronto to discuss with Sir Frederick the wartime role of the Banting Institute, but nothing concrete was done until December, 1939, when Sir Frederick called his staff together and told them all to drop their peacetime research projects and concentrate on medical problems of war.
Search for Funds
FUNDS for research were a major problem. The Institute’s work had been supported largely by royalties from Banting’s insulin, but these weren’t enough to buy the equipment needed for new avenues of research. These were the days of the “phony war,”
when many in high places thought all they needed for victory were the Maginot Line and the British Navy blockade.
At least $3,000 worth of new equipment was needed and no one would buy it. Banting’s talks with senior civil servants at Ottawa were disappointing. He knew medical experimentation of the kind he visualized would have to be on a national scale, but he was informed that if anything was to be done in the field of medical research it would have to be done by the National Research Council, then still operating on a pretty restricted budget. But the Banting group determined to go ahead on their own with the more important projectsthe Franks FlyingSuit, and others.
About this time Sir Frederick Banting went to Great Britain. He found Air Ministry intensely interested in the possibilities of the Franks invention and they asked him to push work on it with all speed.
The Banting group looked around for private funds to back the venture. They tried Harry MacLean, wealthy Merrickville, Ont., contractor, known for his willingness to help along a worthy cause if he could do it secretly. (Later Mr. MacLean gained considerable attention for his gifts as “Mr. X.”) Banting and Franks got off the train at Merrickville, near Ottawa, at seven o’clock one cold winter morning and went to MacLean’s home. He came downstairs to greet them, leading a pet fawn on a chain. It wandered in and out at will, all day, occasionally leaping over the table and skimming the glassware.
Mr. MacLean offered to provide funds without asking even the principle of the suit’s operation. All he wanted to know was that Sir Frederick Banting thought it a good thing and that it likely would help British airmen. A few weeks later along came his cheque for $5,000.
The first objective of Banting and Franks was the development of strong, light fabric which wouldn’t stretch under tension. They analyzed a number of textiles used in tire fabrics for resistance to tensile strain on the testing machines of the Ontario Research Foundation. After a number of tests they settled on old-fashioned, long staple Egyptian cotton as the most promising material then available. Then they asked Drummondville Cottons to make up special fabrics.
Suit Is Tested
IN THE spring of 1940 the first suit was built, shaped much like a man’s street suit, and tailored to fit Dr. Franks. His first theory was that the rubber inner lining would have to come up to the pilot’s neck to protect the nerve which controls blood pressure and this feature was incorporated. He later discovered that this protection wasn’t essential for present-day aircraft and that for practical purposes it was enough to build the liquid pressure up to heart level.
On May 14, 1940, the suit got its first test in the air
Wing Commander W. R. Franks, O.B.E.
DESCENDED from an old U.E.L. family, Wing Commander Franks was born at Weston, near Toronto, Ont., on March 4, 1901. As a small boy he was taken to western Canada by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. J. T. Franks, now of Agincourt, Ont., and with them survived the cyclone which devastated sections of Regina in 1912.
He attended public school in Regina and the University of Toronto, where he won his B.A. and M.A. before being graduated in medicine. On leave of absence to the RCAF, he is associate professor in the Banting and Best Department of Medical Research, University of Toronto.
His wife, Dr. Ruth Franks, is one of Canada’s outstanding authorities on Psychiatry. They have 10-year-old twin sons, William and Hugh, at their home, 71 Crescent Rd., Toronto.
Wing Commander Franks was created an officer of the Order of the British Empire in the 1944 King’s New Year’s Honors list for his achievements in the field of aviation research.
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on Dr. Franks, then an Army lieutenant. He remembers the experience: “Beau Riddell was my pilot and he did some very remarkable flying. In our first spin the centrifugal force built up in the loosely fitting suit whipped me forward across the front of the cockpit with an awful whack. The pressure straightened me out like a ruler, and jerked me out of the seat— but I didn’t black out. Our second big discovery that way was that we’d have to make a suit shaped to fit a pilot sitting down in a cockpit; that we’d have to shape knees and buttocks for a man in sitting position.”
For the next few days he flew every day, and worked every night making modifications, until the suit took on the appearance of a man’s combination underwear made from tire fabric. In a power dive with Flight Lieutenant Beer, Dr. Franks withstood 7.7 “G” without blacking out—or the wings coming off— so he figured the time was ripe to try it in a high-speed fighter. Wing Commander Darcy Gregg, an RAF pilot then at No. 1 T.C. headquarters in Toronto, volunteered to act as test pilot.
Air Ministry sent a Spitfire from Britain for test purposes, the first to reach Canada. Came Dunkirk and the fall of France. Air Ministry ordered the Spitfire recalled, for with invasion imminent every fighter was needed at home. The Spitfire must be on a boat bound for Britain in only five days.
In those five days they worked day and night. Gregg, a member of the RAF’s Schneider Cup team and formerly private pilot to the Duke of Windsor (when he was Prince of Wales), flew over Toronto and district for three days without rest, sometimes at more than 450 miles per hour—so fast that the indicator wouldn’t register. Thousands of Toronto citizens wondered what a Spitfire was doing over the city. Gregg did everything in a test pilot’s bag of tricks, pulling out of a prolonged power dive from 12,000 to 4,000 feet and whipping the Spitfire into sharp, fast turns which threw the accelerometer out past instrument readings. But in the Franks suit he didn’t experience any “black-out.”
Two rubber companies at Toronto co-operated in making the modifications over that hectic week end. Franks worked far into the night, carrying out Gregg’s suggestions with the help of Sydney Porter of Gutta Percha. It was Saturday night and Gutta Percha had no steam for curing rubber. The Dunlop plant, miles away, kept up
steam and at 3.30 Sunday morning Dr. Franks drove the revamped garment across Toronto to use steam at the Dunlop plant.
Wing Commander Gregg reported that the principle was sound and that the design of the suit warranted further development. In the Franks suit he found he had a feeling of normality in all harsh manoeuvres, particularly as regards breathing and movement of his limbs.
With the Spitfire gone Dr. Franks felt that development of a successful suit hinged on being able to make tests under controlled conditions. He needed a giant centrifuge which could whirl men about at aircraft speed, and could start and stop fast enough to simulate the movements of a fighter plane.
Hitler had walked into France, tfie war had taken a grave turn, and this time Dr. Franks had no difficulty in getting the Dominion Government, through the National Research Council, to finance construction of a large whirligig on which he could carry out his tests on humans. He consulted with D. J. Meek, physicist, Dean C. R. Young of the School of Engineering at the University of Toronto; Prof. H. W. Price, head of the University’s electrical engineering department, and Prof. Cass Beggs. Among them they designed the accelerator which later was to prove so important in ascertaining the effect of centrifugal force, or “G,” on airmen and how to offset it. The machine, really a high-speed merry-go-round, had to be powered by electricity, for only electricity could provide the tremendous surges of power needed to start and stop the car in a matter of seconds. For power they decided on the motive units used in modern, high-speed tram cars such as those on many streets in Toronto.
Then they wondered where they could build it without exciting comment. The back yard of the Banting Institute and the stables of the late Sir Joseph Flavelle on Avenue Road were earlier suggestions. They learned that the Air Force intended to take over the Eglinton Hunt Club as an ITS, and decided to locate it there.
In the spring of 1940—more than 100 modifications later, in which they devised stronger zippers, and new methods of dipping fabrics in latex— Dr. Franks was confident he had invented something ready to go to war.
By this time he had transferred from the Army to the newly formed medical service in the RCAF. As Flight Lieutenant Franks he did tests at Roekcliffe air station near Ottawa. He fitted out Squadron Leader F. E. R. Briggs with a suit and together they did all the aerobatics of which a Harvard was capable. And they didn’t “black out.” Briggs, since killed, was the first Canadian pilot to wear the Franks Flying Suit.
Arrangements were made to have the RAF test the suit. Franks and Banting were to have gone to Britain together but a last-minute change sent Franks by boat with the equipment and Banting by aircraft. By the time Franks reached Britain Banting was dead; killed in the crash landing in Newfoundland.
At first British test and development pilots were sceptical but after Dr. Franks had demonstrated that they wouldn’t “black out” at six “G,” they became enthusiastic. By June 27, 1941, the Franks Flying Suit had been classified in official RAF correspondence as “a potential war winner.” By July it had been approved for service trials and 300 suits ordered.
In August, 1941, it was recommended
that the suit be tried out on operations by a squadron flying high-speed aircraft. At a squadron flying Hurricanes and Spitfires it was discovered that the suit worked almost too well for the pilot’s safety. Finding that they didn’t black out some overenthusiastic pilots went into manoeuvres they could never have attempted before. They weren’t happy unless their instruments banged against the 10 “G” mark. But new and unsuspected operational dangers became apparent at very high speeds.
These new experiences of flight taught aircraft designers things about aerodynamics they’d never had a chance to learn before. Until the Frank suit came along they weren’t required to build aircraft above certain stress levels, for human pilots could only manoeuvre at certain speeds without lapsing into unconsciousness. The suit had transferred the failure factor from man to machine.
In the interests of pilot safety, Franks again modified the suit. By taking away the liquid-filled boots he made pilots feel enough pull of gravity to warn them of the approach of danger.
So far as combat was concerned, the young fighter pilots reported that in dogfighting a pilot wearing the Franks suit could make a fool of his adversary. Being able to take twice the “G” in a tight turn that their adversary could withstand, they could turn in half the radius and get on his tail.
With air fighting going on over England, Franks found his experiments interrupted. Often they spotted German planes and had to scurry for cover. He flew back to Canada in October, 1941, with Commander Kelly Rogers, one of Churchill’s pilots, expecting to put in some uninterrupted work on the accelerator. And he was disappointed to learn that the accelerator hadn’t been started but, with the assistance of L. V. Shaw of the National Steel Car Company, it was soon completed. Meanwhile the pilot order of suits for service trial was placed with Dunlops. These were made in the old Mackintosh factory at Manchester, a plant built like a medieval castle and famous as the home of the Mackintosh waterproof.
Navy Tries Suit
The Fleet Air Arm in Britain was particularly interested in the suit, for the fighting strength of carrier-based aircraft hinged on manoeuvrability rather than speed. Lieut.-Commander Brian H. Kendall, of the naval air fighting development suit, personally made many tests, and as a sequel to his report, suits were ordered for all fighter pilots and dive bomber crews of the Fleet Air Arm. Kendall also pioneered in the study of the characteristics of “high-speed stalls” in various aircraft at various altitudes, once reaching nine “G” without getting into trouble. Deliberately he put aircraft into tight turns at tremendously high speeds—evolutions which had killed other pilots who had previously attempted them. Through his own experience Kendall learned how to master the new danger which accompanies rapid changes in direction at speeds near that of sound. He also found that with everything in the aircraft getting heavier, guns had a tendency to jam and in co-operation with experts proper modifications were made which effectively removed the “G” gremlin in gunnery.
The Navy’s first operational use of the Franks suit over land was at Oran in French North Africa. At sea there had been little likelihood of pilots coming down in enemy hands and giving away the surprise value of the
suit. At Oran the British and Americans planned to go in with such overwhelming strength that they could recover afterward any fighters shot down in battle. Aboard an aircraft carrier went a colleague of Dr. Franks, Flight Lieutenant W. R. Martin, 113 Grenadier Road, Toronto, to help the fighter pilots with their new suits and observe at firsthand their performance.
Only one British fighter pilot equipped with Franks Flying Suit was killed at Oran. One was shot down; a second ran out of petrol and made a forced landing on water; and another bailed out. Here are some reports of returning British pilots.
Describing a diving attack on the French aerodrome at low level, one announced, “If I hadn’t been wearing the suit, I would certainly have blacked out, for the pull-out was very severe.”
Others said, in part:
“I dived vertically at 3,000feettoget in a burst. Consequently I had to pull out very sharply, but I didn’t black out.”
“The suit proved very useful. I wore it 12 hours and found it very comfortable.”
“1 didn’t black out at all, despite startling evolutions at low level.”
“I turned tight inside him, causing the enemy aircraft trying to follow me to spin into the sea.”
“Attacked by seven aircraft from above, I made a sharp right turn which the enemy couldn’t follow.”
In November, 1942, the Air Officer Commanding-In-Chief of Fighter Command discussed adoption of the Franks suit and pointed out that a margin of “G” tolerance could be used to advantage in fighter operations. Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas felt that a pilot wearing the suit had an important operational advantage over one not so fitted.
It was decided, however, to spring a surprise on the enemy by withholding it from general use until all squadrons were equipped and a favorable occasion, from the viewpoint of tactical advantage, should present itself. Decision as to when it would be used was left to Air Ministry.
Meanwhile research on the suit was going steadily on. Not only was Dr. Franks at Toronto constantly attempting improvements and trying them on himself in the whirligig before incorporating them into the suit but Flying Officer W. A. Kennedy (181 Pearson Ave.), Toronto, went with the RAF to Malta, North Africa, Bengal, and Ceylon, to try it under operational conditions in desert and jungle. As a result, cooling features were introduced.
Since the first order for 300 suits at Manchester, 165 changes have been made in design or construction. Now the Mark 3 model comes in seven standard sizes and by means of special lacing devices and specially constructed zippers developed by Franks and his associates, the suit fits every size and build like a well-worn glove.