SUMTER - Before climbing into the cockpit of a Shaw Air Force Base F-16 fighter, Lt. Col. Doug DeMaio must strap on some 60 pounds of survival gear.
Much of the equipment is high-tech stuff, including a GPS receiver that plots his location.
Then there are mundane items, including a pack of matches and a whistle tucked in the pockets of his survival vest.
And, if the mission is flown in cold weather, DeMaio will wear a rubber suit and a black, fleece liner, called a "ninja" suit, to keep warm and dry if he needs to bail out.
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While the gear might be heavy and bulky, the Air Force has deemed it essential for pilots.
DeMaio, of Mendham, N.J., said he's happy to wear it.
"You just get used to it," said DeMaio, commander of the 55th Fighter Squadron at Shaw. "It's not uncomfortable equipment, there's just more of it. And, after awhile you don't even notice it."
Taking care of the equipment is the job of life-support technicians assigned to each of the three fighter squadrons under the 20th Fighter Wing based at Shaw.
It's a task the airmen take seriously.
"Your life is our business," said Sr. Airman David McIntyre, of West Deptford, N.J.
McIntyre, along with his boss, Tech Sgt. Oscar Hurtado, of Queens, N.Y., have to make sure every piece of equipment a pilot carries works and - of course - that he's carrying spare batteries.
Besides the GPS receiver, pilots' survival kits include a hand-held transceiver called an ANPRC-112. It weighs about 28 ounces with batteries. It acts as a homing beacon, and is a radio a downed pilot uses to communicate with search-and-rescue teams.
Other items pilots need before taking off from Shaw include:
- G SUIT: The one-piece jumpsuit helps aviators avoid losing consciousness when experiencing a severe pull of gravity. The G suit is inflated and exerts pressure on the pilot's abdomen and legs, preventing blood from pooling in those parts of the body areas and maintaining blood flow to the brain.
- HELMET: The helmet is custom-fitted to protect the head from any hard knocks. It also reduces outside noise, and is designed to alleviate pressure on the sinuses and brain caused by sudden acceleration. There's a bracket to attach an oxygen mask and another on top for night-vision goggles. The helmet also is wired for radio gear.
Another purpose is for identification: the pilots' sometimes colorful call signs are stenciled on their helmets.
- NIGHT VISION GOGGLES: Called NVGs, the goggles amplify ambient light allowing pilots to see in virtual darkness. At a cost of about $7,000 each, the goggles get special care.
So much for the exotic stuff. There also are more mundane items:
- GLOVES: Pilots wear Nomex gloves, which protect their hands from fire and extreme heat, as well as keep them warm in the cold.
- FLARE: The military flare can be seen from 1,250 feet - day or night.
- LIFE PRESERVER: Attached to the collar of the pilots' safety harness, the preserver is self-inflating. An inflatable raft also is packed into the pilots' ejection seats.
- FINGER LIGHTS: The thimble-like, miniature flashlights attach to the pilots' fingertips, allowing them to read maps and documents at night.
- CAMOUFLAGE PAINT: Called "green lipstick," pilots use the paint to disguise their faces.
- COMPASS: As always, there's a backup plan in case the GPS receiver conks out.
- WHISTLE: Yup, pilots carry a whistle in their survival suits. A downed pilot would use it to make noise and attract rescuers.
- MATCHES: Since pilots never know where they might have to eject, they carry waterproof matches in a plastic bag to build a fire.
- STROBE LIGHT: The device flashes a bright light, helping pilots to make their location more visible to rescuers.
While it is a lot of extra stuff to carry, DeMaio said pilots appreciate the work of the life-support technicians and wouldn't think of taking off without the gear.
"You want to wear it," DeMaio said. "If you don't have it, you're going to miss out."
As for the naming of some items, no one seems to know just how the cold-weather, rubber suit - technically referred to as the "water survival suit" - got its nickname the "poopie suit."
"It's your guess," said McIntyre, smiling.