Civil Aviation Helmet Standard

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Gavin Lewis
In a holding pattern

The new Civilian Aviation Helmet Standard circulates criticism and compliments, according to Amy Gallagher

Civilian aviation helmet manufacturers are circling a new standard which has generated questions of affordability with respect to the initial testing requirements leading to the certification set forth by the Office of Aviation Services [OAS] of the United States Department of Interior [DOI] and the US Forest Service [USFS]. AirMed&Rescue reached out to helmet manufacturers, association members, distributors and government agencies to understand the impact on the industry.

In April 2018, the DOI confirmed the approval of the 2018 DOI Handbook, Aviation Life Support Equipment [ALSE] Guide and Department of Interior/ US Forest Service Aviation Flight Helmet Standard. However, as of April 2018, there have not been any certificates of compliance, according to the DOI/USFS document.

A mixed reaction

The new helmet standard could offer the possibility of ensuring the perfect performance, pricing, and profitability for a handful of manufacturers in the civilian aviation helmet industry. For the majority, however, the new design standard is raising questions, concerns, and complaints.

it is the intention to provide a test method that is better suited to ensure adequate protection from impacts

While revising the DOI US Department of Agriculture-Forest Service Guide, Aviation Life Support Equipment [ALSE] Handbook, the DOI Office of Aviation Services [OAS] identified the need for specific criteria to determine the acceptable performance level for the civilian aviation helmet. According to the OAS, the ‘problem’ was clear: the civil aviation community is void of any guidance on aviation helmet standards. As a result, the OAS determined that the ‘solution’ was to acquire expertise that can develop modern, cost effective, proven performance standards and testing methodologies.

“The OAS has a long history of collaborating with the private sector in providing DOI bureaus with safe and effective aviation equipment in support of hazardous missions like wildland fire, and search and rescue,” stated OAS Safety Chief Keith Raley, Retired US Air Force and US Coast Guard pilot. Unfortunately, said Raley, a consensus on safety standards for the civilian flight helmet did not exist.  

In April 2017, the OAS contracted with the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a recognised organisation with expertise in the area of helmet testing to provide technical, scientific systems engineering and human factors subject matter expertise to develop modern, cost-effective civilian aviation helmet performance standards and testing methodologies, along with the assistance of the US Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, the world’s foremost laboratory dealing with helicopter safety and helmet performance issues, per published DOI data. 

“For decades, the DOI and other agencies relied solely on helmet manufacturers already approved by the US military, eliminating other helmet manufacturers from consideration,” explained Raley. “To address this shortcoming, OAS collaborated with industry and interagency partners to develop objective, performance-based safety standards to evaluate civilian aviation flight helmets for possible use.”

According to Raley, the published testing and qualification requirements (Interagency Aviation Helmet Standard) provide civilian helmet manufacturers with an avenue to government markets previously unavailable, while ensuring DOI and participating interagency partner employees are afforded aviation helmets that have met accepted, independently tested, and standardised safety requirements.

U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Matt Hecht

Southwest Research Institute 

[When asked, the SwRI was not able to provide specific information regarding the testing results of its customers.]

According to Allen Beavers, Research Engineer, SwRI, Mechanical Engineering Division, there are current aviation helmets that have been certified to a now obsolete military standard which the DOI/USFS standard is looking to replace. “This could lead to unnecessary design features and/or costs for civilian use helmets, that could ultimately reduce the quality of protection provided for helmets requiring protection from primary blunt force impacts,” he added.

it is the manufacturer’s responsibility to request and ensure that helmets requiring safety certifications are tested to the appropriate standard

By incorporating DOT FMVSS No. 218 helmet testing procedures into the DOI/USFS standard, it is the intention to provide a test method that is better suited to ensure adequate protection from impacts, stated Beavers.

“To date, I am unaware of labs other than SwRI currently performing testing to the DOI/USFS standard; however, most ISO-9001 certified labs that perform FVMSS No. 218 testing could expand their capabilities to include DOI/USFS aviation helmet testing in the future,” he said. “Typically, however, it is the manufacturer’s responsibility to request and ensure that helmets requiring safety certifications are tested to the appropriate standard.”

Avenue for non-military helmets

According to the DOI/USFS Aviation Helmets Specification, the new standard provides an avenue to allow non-military approved helmets to be considered for acquisition within its aviation communities.

The document also states: “Although military approved helmets will remain authorised, simply adopting military specifications as our own standard was eliminated as some of those specifications include areas that are not applicable to DOI. Some of these areas include the Department of Defense (DoD) purchase process, design elements involving ballistic protection, and packaging/delivery. Additionally, some military helmet models were built to an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard (ANSI Z90.1) which is no longer supported by ANSI. As such, these obsolete standards are unusable for ISO-9001 certified or ISO-17025 accredited testing labs.”

According to James Wegge, Founder and Board of Directors Member, Gibson & Barnes has represented Gentex Corporation aviation helmets for 35 years. Wegge said that the military and commercial versions of the Gentex HGU-56/P and SPH-5 are identical except for their colour. “Gentex is in the process of testing the HGU-56/P to the new standard,” he added. 

“While the DOI sets the standards and testing requirements for commercial aviation helmets, the mission at Gentex is to deliver helmet systems that provide operators the highest levels of performance and safety,” said Robert McCay, Gentex, Vice President, Aircrew. “To do so, we continually invest in our development, testing, and manufacturing facilities, all of which operate under the ISO-9001 Quality Management System,” he added.

For manufacturers, this is an opportunity to demonstrate and publicise helmet performance

The intended audience for the new standard is the helmet manufacturers, distributors and third-party ISO-9001 certified or ISO-17025 accredited testing labs, said Wegge. “For manufacturers, this is an opportunity to demonstrate and publicise helmet performance,” he said, adding: “Manufacturers that choose to follow the DOI standard must make the helmet design in three sizes, design the helmet to fit 98 per cent of men and women [equally]; test the helmet at a qualified laboratory; and establish a quality assurance programme.”

Although companies that have decided not to test their helmets to the DOI Standard often criticise it, helmet users deserve to know what performance standards their helmets meet, added Wegge.

Helmet design and manufacturing is an industry that requires significant capital and skilled technical expertise

McCay said that ‘Gibson & Barnes does not have exclusivity on the sale of the company’s SPH-5 Helmet System’. Some manufacturers believe otherwise. 

A redesign requires capital

Although the document states that the specification is a performance standard and is not intended to restrict design, some manufacturers are concerned about cost restrictions of testing each design, and rightly so. 

“Helmet design and manufacturing is an industry that requires significant capital and skilled technical expertise,” said Wegge. Additionally, he said, the commercial helicopter helmet market is not very big. “With total sales of about 2,500 helmets per year, Gentex accounts for about half,” said Wegge. “The other half is split among at least six other helmet sellers. Is it possible that the market is too small to support so many companies?”

it costs at least US$4 million to develop and test a new helmet

Interactive Safety Products, the US subsidiary of Helmet Integrated Systems Ltd (UK), manufacturers the Alpha line of helmets. “The manager said it costs at least US$4 million to develop and test a new helmet,” he added. “Not all companies can do that.”

When the ‘other half’ speaks

While Gentex may appear to be the ‘Goliath’ in the market, the industry is home to smaller manufacturers that could very well represent the ‘David.’ 

David Schweitzer, president and co-owner of US-based Government Sales Inc (GSI), and brother Eric, an engineer, were essentially primed as experts in the military surplus market by their father Charles who began selling Vietnam-era flight helmets in 1969. 

“Later, we evolved into manufacturing custom helmet models that parallel the US military specifications and performance standards,” he said. “With an engineer on board, we started marketing our own helmet. However, about 10 years ago, the second-hand flight helmets stopped showing up. We called our Congressman to ask why, but we were only given the ‘runaround’.” Schweitzer said the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office [DRMO] declared the flight helmets ‘dangerous to the public’ then the DOI issued a warning about the presence of ‘counterfeit helmets’ circulating in the market. 

“About the same timeframe, Gentex began the design and testing of its currently approved helmets,” he said. “Interestingly, Gentex contracts are all government contracts.”

While helicopter and fixed-wing pilots have come to rely on GSI for five decades, said Schweitzer, running a test on each helmet design with four different prototypes is cost-prohibitive. “Most manufacturers can’t meet the specs,” he said. 

According to Schweitzer, GSI’s helmets are tested at an independent lab to the exact standard set forth by the US Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory (USAARL), and added that he will provide the test data upon request.

Designed to prevent innovation

Ron Abbott, Helicopter Helmets, LLC., Melbourne, FL, believes the new design standard is designed to keep innovation out of the market. “No one can test the helmets based on the second-generation test requirements, so nothing has moved or changed,” said Abbott. “We have waited five years since the inspector general told the air branch at DOI to allow non-Gentex helmets to be listed on the approved helmet list.” 

Abbott said that the DOI allows Gentex with their 20-year-old helmets to be allowed with in-house testing while the other manufacturers incur lost sales until the DOI writes a test programme that can be applied to every helmet in the industry.

“The standard calls for military, past or present, helmets in use; however, no one can buy a military helmet for civilian use unless they brought it with them [from military service],” he said. “So Gentex sells the copy of the military helmet with the same part number, but not made the same, not tested the same and not to the standard demanded by DOI.” 

Decorative safety first image.

A ‘reasonable’ requirement 

The DOI Standard is a major step forward in improving commercial aviation safety and injury reduction, said Wegge. “An example of the reasonableness of the new design requirement is the impact requirement, which allows a maximum of 300 g,” he said. “The military requirement for the HGU-56/P is much more stringent, allowing only 175 g.  If anything, the new standard could be stricter.”

The Standard also requires manufacturers to have a quality assurance [QA] system that uses recognised documentation, inspection, product improvement techniques, and record keeping, he added. “However, not all manufacturers have a QA system in place,” said Wegge. 

Let the end-user contribute 

With more questions and criticisms from manufacturers and customers, the industry should have an opportunity to participate in an interactive discussion about the helmet redesign, said Helicopter Association International [HAI] Board Member Randy Rowles, Owner and CEO, Helicopter Institute, Inc. “A customer advisory board would be a welcome initiative,” he said. “Like too many government-driven issues, the end-user often never gets the opportunity to be a part of the design criteria.” Additional stakeholders such as the users of night vision goggles [NVG], external-load operators, and agriculture pilots would like to have some active participation on these discussions, Rowles added. “Many will say it’s up to the helmet original equipment manufacturer [OEM] to design for the customer; however, many compromises can be made along the path to certification by open dialogue between design criteria and end-user requirements,” he said. 

No company wants to commit manufacturing processes to an open-end standard

As for helmet OEM delays in design internally, said Rowles, it’s a ‘moving goal post’ issue. “No company wants to commit manufacturing processes to an open-end standard,” he added. “Once this is dialed-in, the helmet manufacturers will catch up.”
The next issue, said Rowles, is pricing. “Somebody has to pay for these new designs,” he said. “A price point of $2,000-$4,000 for a good helmet is outside of the possibility for many pilots. Additionally, this is a non-required piece of equipment and personal protective equipment isn’t exactly an embraced item among our non-military helicopter pilot cadre.”


In response to this article, James Wegge, Director of Gibson & Barnes, has asked for clarification and corrections of some points made.

  • Relevant to the legitimacy of claims made, Helicopter Helmet LLC and Government Sales Inc. attempted to sue Gibson & Barnes and Gentex in federal court alleging a multitude of wrongdoings; this lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice. HHL and GSI have appealed the dismissal.
  • Gentex manufactures both military and civilian versions of its HGU-56/P and SPH-5, and HGU-84/P helmets under different part numbers, not the same part number. It makes both military and commercial versions of each helmet from the same materials using the same manufacturing processes. The only difference between the military and commercial helmets is the colour.

Gentex is currently testing its HGU-56/P to the DOI Aviation Helmet Standard.

AirMed&Rescue wholly agrees that the adoption of performance standards for civil aviation helmets, and the requirement of government aviation standards that helmets purchased for employees meet those standards, is both fair and reasonable.