Keeping Airmen comfortable and safe

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Every day, more than 300,000 Airmen around the world put on their uniform. But there's only one office that makes sure every uniform is comfortable and more importantly, safe.

"The Air Force Uniform Office mission is to design, develop, and sustain Air Force uniform items and some mission essential gear for the entire air force," said Colonel William McGuffey, the chief of Human Systems Division.

The Air Force Uniform Office, or AFUO, is an integrated product team of designers and engineers within the Human Systems Division that works together to develop patterns, create prototypes, and manage fit and wear tests for more than 520 individual items.

"We don't want a uniform to melt on an aircrew member and increase their burn injuries," says 1st Lt. Nicholas Hyatt, an AFUO systems integration engineer. "We don't want the uniform to be excessively bulky and cause snag hazards. So if they have to egress from an aircraft it could inhibit them from doing that. Clothing companies like the Gap and Old Navy are not going to do those types of tests."

Currently, AFUO designers and engineers are fit testing a new Cold Weather Aviation System, also known as CWAS, for aircrews flying in cold weather environments. The request is to develop a flame resistant system that can also keep them warm in minus 20 degree temperatures with a 55 mile an hour wind. To withstand those freezing temperatures, the CWAS has five layers.

"It's a really tough requirement because when you and I go out into really cold temperatures we can wear multiple layers to stay warm but we'll be in extremely bulky, unbreathable material. Our aircrews work in confined spaces so they can't wear bulky uniforms or they may accidentally flip switches in the cockpit," adds Hyatt.

Before CWAS is tested in the field, the AFUO has invited more than 50 Airmen to put on each layer one-by-one. Designers spend hours measuring and taking notes as Airmen try on different sizes. Suggestions from Airmen are taken into consideration with the goal of making the CWAS comfortable for majority of those that tried it on.

"Overall we're trying to find out how everything fits and how warm Airmen are getting as they move from station to station. So we ask them at each station to rate their thermal comfort and see how warm or hot they are and at what point do they start over-heating," said AFUO design lead Katie Leahy. "We impact everybody and you know everybody has their own opinions and subjective likes and dislikes. For us, if you can get 80% of our Airmen to say they really like something it's very exciting,"

Katie is one of three government civilian clothing designers in the entire Air Force and they all work in the uniform office. During her 18 years she's designed everything from women's flight suits to chemical biological coveralls to the Airman Battle Uniform.

"Believe it or not there is a book on Vietnam era tiger stripe patterns," adds Leahy, "and we looked in the book and found a pattern that is based on what they call the John Wayne tiger stripe pattern. We based the ABU pattern on that and then adjusted the color of the shades for the Air Force."

While majority of AFUO employees work at Wright-Patterson, they do have four people in Philadelphia, Pa., and one person at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass. These employees serve as liaisons between their sister services to maximize a uniform's capabilities.

"Through my collaboration with the Army here, we arranged to allow Airmen to wear the Fire Resistant-Army Combat Uniform in combat zones. Plus, the contract was paid by the Army. Our goal is to leverage with other services to find cost avoidance solutions that meets Air Force needs without making a new program," said Debra McLean, AFUO Acquisition Program Manager at Natick, Mass.

Airmen can also submit uniform suggestions from the field via the Air Force Portal by clicking on the Airmen Powered by Innovation link.

"Ideas usually come from the field. They are scheduled through the major commands and those ideas that are accepted go to the virtual uniform board. Those suggestions are then looked at by various command representatives and those that are selected are sent to the Air Force Uniform Office with Chief of Staff approval," said Yvonne Wilson, AFUO chief of sustainment.