Creating a Better Brain Bucket—Skydiving Helmets Step Toward Safety Standards
Features | Jul 01, 2019
Creating a Better Brain Bucket—Skydiving Helmets Step Toward Safety Standards

Annette O'Neil

 

No doubt, “concussion” is a scary word. There’s definitely evidence to support those fears: The chronic changes in the brain’s function and structure that result from repeated bell-ringing lead, in some cases, to early dementia and to the muddled cognitive grave of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Yikes.

A good helmet once seemed like just the ticket to escape such a fate. The reality, unfortunately, is that helmets simply aren’t designed to protect people against traumatic brain injury. They can’t. The injury is too dynamic for so simple a solution. The brain’s jiggly mass moves in a concussed skull like Jell-O, shivering and splashing unpredictably inside its cavern of bone, pounding away at the delicate corpus calossum at its heart. No helmet, no matter how padded, can prevent that from happening.

To put it another way: No matter how much bubble wrap you swaddle around an egg, the egg’s insides will still scramble if you shake it hard enough.

A good helmet can, however, prevent the skull from fracturing—and that’s certainly something. Skull fracture is a potential outcome of any given skydive. And, if you’re going to bother putting a helmet on your head, it should really be more than a mount for your camera and a gallery for your stickers. Right?

FRENCH STANDARDS

As you may have noticed, skydiving-helmet manufacturers have recently put considerable effort toward moving in the direction of safety. The epicenter of this move was Paris. With the introduction of the Skydiving Helmet Standard that the French Parachute Federation and the Association Française de Normalisation (the French government’s standardization office) commissioned in 2015, the skydiving-helmet industry got the extra nudge it needed to redouble its efforts in the safety department. The rest is (living) history.

Back in 2015, a representative of the French Parachute Federation contacted the Cookie Helmets team in Australia and asked them to join a meeting in Paris. The invitees: a couple of other skydiving-helmet manufacturers and a section of the French government in charge of setting safety standards. Apparently, the French Parachute Federation had come to the government with the observation that there were no standards yet set for skydiving helmets. As a governmental entity itself, the French federation has a duty of care for skydivers (primarily for those first 100 jumps) that equates to workplace safety regulations, and the unregulated nature of the skydiving-helmet space seemed to them a gap that needed filling. This meeting signaled step number one of a development process for such a standard.

When Cookie, a leader in the skydiving helmet market, arrived in Paris, it was to a seemingly randomly determined process. The regulators had drafted a set of guidelines using a bunch of standards from other, tangentially related industries, including some risk analysis on the kinds of hazards pertaining to skydiving, including what risks related to helmets and helmet use. From there, they started writing a bunch of criteria in a standard form.

This was especially frustrating for Cookie because, as luck would have it, they were already deep into the process of designing their next release when they got that first phone call. They’d already been doing a bit of research and development on alternative materials that would lend themselves to better impact absorption, but they were doing so in the absence of any external safety standard.

Cookie founder Jason Cooke noted, “The moment they drew the line in the sand that they were going to do a standard was the first time we had to work with a federal government to meet standards, because building a helmet for skydiving that meets these types of standards is very hard. If you look around at snow and bicycle and a bunch of other helmets, they are not really skydiver friendly. They are all very big in volume and quite heavy in weight. Our R&D was [focused on] how we can build the smallest helmet possible and achieve the standard at the same time. And that’s tough.”

PREDICTABLY COMPLICATED

What does a helmet safety standard look like? Predictably complicated.

Skydiving helmets are more complicated than, say, the motorcycle helmets to which they owe so much aesthetic debt. Similarly, to include a face shield on a helmet requires that the shield material and construction be tested to a set of impact standards, as well as undergoing a test for optics (including, for instance, anti-fog coatings). Dissimilarly, skydiving helmets absolutely must be close-fitting, rendering useless the considerably bulkier design legacies of their motorsports brethren.

The standard for impact is different across a bunch of different sports. Generally, the helmet must be stress tested under different temperatures. “One of the requirements is that the helmet must be heated to plus-50 degrees Celsius for about four hours, and then the moment it comes out of the oven it goes straight in for impact testing,” Cooke said. “We had our hands tied for several years because of this standard. And we did a bunch of R&D on another part of the standard that was, in our minds, a little ambiguous.”

What part? Well, the auto-release requirement.

“They wanted the helmet to automatically release under a certain load,” Cooke continued. “What they had initially written into the standard back in 2015 is that when between 16 and 20 kilograms of force is on the chin strap, the strap must disconnect. Well, we did truckloads of R&D developing a buckle that could do that. We finally got our hands on one that could. However, what we ended up doing in our tests was demonstrating that the system works great when you pull on the strap in one direction, but if you apply pressure to another part of the helmet, it could release under less of a load, which could mean the helmet could potentially come off your head if you did have an impact.” Cooke grimaced and said, “We had some discussions about that.”

“There’s also a snag test in the standard,” he added, “and the snag standard stated that a line that’s 3mm by 0.5mm cannot catch on the exterior surface of the helmet. We said to them, ‘Hey, look, that isn’t really a line that’s used in our industry. How about we use a 725-pound Spectra to conduct that test?’ That flew with the committee, thank goodness.”

The next step was to get a baseline for the helmets already in Cookie’s arsenal. They packed up all their current helmets and brought them out to a test lab. Concurrently, they started doing drop tests with a bunch of different materials to see how each performed. “It became quite apparent to us,” Cooke said, “that the forces involved in the impact testing were quite high.”

They took some inspiration from kayaking helmets, from bicycle helmets and from snow-sports helmets. In the end, Cookie chose a foam material called expanded polypropylene—EPP—instead of the standard EPS (expanded polystyrene), allowing for a lower-volume helmet with a thinner liner that still achieved an impact rating. In skydiving, after all, the streamlined silhouette is king.

“One thing is making them look good, and then the other thing is performance,” Cooke said. “There are a bunch of engineering-specific criteria that you have to maintain. You’ve got to have a certain amount of coverage, a certain field of view and a certain level of protection in different parts. There are areas the helmet must cover, and then there are other areas that must have impact protection. And we’re building these extremely small compared to helmets for other sports.”

The fact of the matter is that our sport exists, in a functional sense, completely outside the parameters of other helmet-requisite activities. As skydivers, we go from zero to 200-plus mph in a very short amount of time. You don’t do that on a bicycle, snowboard, hang glider or paraglider. Add to that the extreme minimalism and streamlining of our gear, and you have quite a conundrum on your hands. “Making things small is our biggest R&D challenge,” Cooke mused, “and will be for the next five years, at least. Low volume, low weight—that’s where we are channeling.”

The unfortunate-for-manufacturers aspect of this kind of testing is you can’t build prototypes for testing purposes. You have to build the real deal. It takes a lot of time—and, it goes without saying, money—to build real helmets just to smash up. Then, when you inevitably find that they don’t perform as well as anticipated, you get to do it again. And again. And again. And then you have to build it in another three shell sizes.

ANOTHER LAYER

Then, right at the 11th hour—in April 2017—the workgroup had another meeting to discuss a stack of newly obtained information from the Australian Parachute Federation pertaining to injuries. At that meeting, another bombshell dropped: No longer was this set of standards only to be applied to sky helmets. Now, wind tunnels were to be included in the standard. It makes sense, really. The performance requirements for a full-face helmet when the standards were first under discussion—back in 2013 or thereabouts—were completely different, especially with the upswing of dynamic flying and freestyle in the wind tunnel. Consequently, with so many more injuries occurring in wind tunnels (head injuries specifically, because people fly at very high speeds), the government decided to fold the discipline in.

“Wind-tunnel operators were getting quite a bit of pressure from the government regarding the helmets they were using for indoor skydiving,” Cooke said. “They were saying, ‘Look, this helmet is going to be expensive, and we don’t have any accidents in the tunnel.’ But the government wasn’t budging. Long story short, I think it took another six months to get wind-tunnel use added to the standard. The government had to go away and do their own risk analysis on wind-tunnel injuries and the sport of wind-tunnel activities.”

Designing a helmet for the tight tolerances of the wind tunnel is no easy feat (as Cookie learned from doing it from the start). If you get any surfaces wrong, the flyer will feel like the helmet is flying them around the pivot point of their delicate little neck—especially in a high-speed, head-down orientation. A helmet designer has to make sure that the exterior surfaces are slick and even and that the helmet is super snug in all orientations. Any extra bulk in the helmet makes that job much, much harder. Oh, it also must look hot. Obviously.

“A helmet is very much a functional product,” Cooke insisted. “Function outweighs fashion, so we have to make sure we tick all the functional boxes first and then add fashion over the top. But we definitely have to make these things look good. That’s a big part of it for our sponsored athletes and our market. We can’t let them down.”

MEANWHILE, IN ITALY

Meanwhile, in Italy, Tonfly’s Ippo Fabbi was grappling with similar concerns from a slightly different angle. Fabbi has been skydiving since 1991. Lately, he’s been spending about 100 days a year speed riding in the mountains around his native Italy, and his experience there inspired him to design an air-sports-specific helmet that could stand up to a strong bonking. He came up with the ICE—a snag-point-free, crash-rated helmet with a clever sleeve to cover and secure a potentially wayward goggle strap. Indeed, the release of the ICE marked the very first rated helmet in air sports. From that baseline, Tonfly, a manufacturer of skydiving helmets and jumpsuits, developed a full-face helmet. It started developing a crash-tested helmet several years ago, well before the French federation started calling meetings, using the European Standard for Airborne-Sport-Rated Helmets. From there, it dug into the design of a full-face version. Easy? Nope.

“My idea,” said Fabbi, “was if we do one, we should do a totally different concept from what is around, because to me the ones out there were uncomfortable. They vibrated too much. So, I thought, ‘How about making a full-face helmet that’s protective for real?’ Otherwise, I figured it’s better to have an open face and feel the air.”

To solve the problem, Tonfly developed a helmet that’s closer to a motorcycle version than the other offerings on the market. It’s a flip-chin version lined thoroughly around the neck that closes securely at the chin with a single-finger-operated latch. The padding determines the fit, not the strap closure.

“When you open it,” Fabbi explained, “you put your head in, you close the front, and this completely closes the helmet all the way around the base of the head. [The flip chin] becomes very useful to be able to speak when in the tunnel or the plane. You can keep your helmet on when you’re speaking to people [while] debriefing, and then open and close it with one hand. The shell is made of carbon fiber and aramid, which protects against perforation. You can put the visor under your feet and jump; it doesn’t break.”

Fabbi had originally estimated about a year and a half of development. In the end, it took five. Tonfly presented the result—called the TFX—in 2017. Uniquely, largely because of its pre-Federation provenance, the TFX has two complementary ratings: the AFNOR XP S 72-600 and the EN966: 2012 + A1:2102. (The latter is rated for all airborne sports for all of Europe.)

“Our athletes have loved it since we had the first real prototype ready to use,” he said, grinning. “I think people cannot go back once they’ve tried it.”

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD

On the opposite side of the world, 10 minutes from Skydive Perris in California, a decidedly different game is afoot.

Helmet manufacturer Bonehead Composites founder and designer Chris Frisella got his start in helmet design when his very first camera helmet came right off his head. It popped off on the very first jump with his very first (and very expensive) camera setup on board. Prudently, he chased it down to where it had fallen in a strawberry patch and set about rebuilding it.

“I decided to glue it back together and reshape it,” he said. “When I made the first prototype and started using it, it worked great. There were a lot of camera guys at this particular drop zone, so I started selling a helmet here and a helmet there.”

Frisella first started building helmets in his garage. Before he knew it, he’d expanded into a 2,500-square-foot industrial space. Now, 25 years and 16 employees later, Bonehead operates from an 8,000-square-foot building. It’s also expanded horizontally: It builds flight helmets for the Red Bull Air Force, the forestry department, agricultural pilots and the military. Uniquely, it makes everything in-house, under one roof, never outsourcing to overseas suppliers. Frisella is proud of that, and he’s proud of the materials Bonehead uses.

“We’ve always maintained a low-profile, lightweight helmet because we make everything out of composite,” he explained. “Even though composite shells do tend to yield higher strengths over plastic, I don’t want this comment to imply that’s all one should consider when choosing a helmet. When we talk about helmet certification, it has more to do with what’s between the shell and one’s head that makes it or breaks it. That’s typically a thick layer of high-density styrofoam.”

That design philosophy has driven the release of Bonehead’s tunnel-centric, full-face helmet: the Dynamic. Soft-released last year to the manufacturer’s athlete team for beta testing and running adjustments, the helmet’s final production model is now officially shipping. For this design, Frisella emphasized a super-wide field of vision and a snug, streamlined fit while using a composite shell, the higher strength of which conveys the helmet’s noggin protection. Sure, the helmet isn’t bulked up with foam, but tests have proven that it’ll take a hit like a champ.

“My experience is that, in the sport of skydiving, there hasn’t been a real need for a certified helmet,” Frisella posited. “It gives people a sense of security, but at the end of the day, the helmets are so much bigger, and nobody is ever going to be able to hold a company liable for hurting their head. The company will be able to find something on the helmet that voids the warranty, whether it is a hole for a camera mount or a scratch that looks like the helmet has been dropped.”

Even though Frisella doesn’t personally believe that skydiving should require a certified helmet, he’s the first to tell you that it’s a good option for jumpers to have. “Let individuals decide what level of protection is right for them,” he insisted, “because there will be pros and cons to both certified and non-certified helmets. After 25 years of producing skydiving helmets, I’ve never felt head injuries were of high probability in skydiving. Let’s face it: The injury incident curve is very steep, starting at the feet. When I get on a motorcycle, certified is a must, but in the sky, the risks are just different.”

WHAT THE FUTURE BRINGS

Back in Australia, Jason Cooke is philosophical about the whole thing. “I think we will look back in 10 years’ time,” he said, “and look at the development of these standards in the same way we look at the development of the AAD [automatic activation device]: as a kind of insurance policy. And in other ways, too. Both AADs and helmets are meant to function in a certain way and within certain parameters. If you go outside of those parameters, you can definitely still injure yourself.”

We skydivers, with our boots on the ground on the drop zones (and in the gear stores) of the world, are certainly going to see these changes advance over the next few years. Because those under discussion are currently European Union standards, the first uptake will certainly be in Europe, especially in the standards’ native France. Whether the parachute federations from the world community decide to take them up—or develop standards of their own—still remains to be seen, especially with the elephant in the room: the addition of a camera to the helmet, a non-negotiable for most jumpers, which voids the standard completely. “The moment you start fitting cameras to these helmets,” Cooke said, “you are not going to pass a snag test unless you build the camera inside the helmet. That’s the million-dollar question: What about cameras?”

“We have got a truckload of work ahead of us,” he added, no doubt speaking for the rest of the manufacturers in the skydiving helmet world, “but we’re ready for it.”


About the author

Annette O’Neil, D-33263, is a multidisciplinary air sports athlete: skydiver, BASE jumper, paraglider and speed-wing pilot. Location-independent, she travels the world full-time as a freelance writer and producer. In her spare time, she loves flopping around on a yoga mat and carpetbombing Facebook from Instagram.

 

 

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