Leather Flying Helmets

Sept 2014

Over the years, I've written about flying jackets, goggles, and scarves...but until now, haven't touched on one of the fundamental items of open-cockpit wear:  The leather flying helmet.

There are a couple of reasons for that.  The minor one is that it's hard to talk about leather helmets without posting pictures of them being worn, and you-know-who is the only available model.  The world is ugly enough without a bunch of "selfies" of me wearing leather helmets.  So there'll be a couple, below.  Be warned.

The primary reason is that there aren't any "brands" sold out there... without that, it's hard to give a recommendation.  About 90% of "leather flying helmets" are meant to be joke items, and the real ones can be hard to find.  The term "Snoopy Helmet" is used quite a bit, usually by the joke-helmet vendors, but not always.

The strange thing is, "joke helmets" aren't necessarily cheap trash.  Take a look at the older picture to the right (I did warn you, didn't I).  This was novelty helmet from Banana Republic back when they first started, when they specialized in unusual imported clothing.  It worked quite nicely...it was the only helmet I wore back when flying the no-radio N500F.  I also wore it for several years once I acquired my own Fly Baby, with a radio.

What's the difference between a novelty item vs. what the baseballers call a "Gamer"?
Mostly in adjustability and the resulting fit. Everybody's head is shaped differently, and real helmets will include several straps and buckles to adjust the helmet to fit your head better.

Do You Even Need a Helmet?

I prefer to wear a helmet primarily because of comfort.  I wear my hair pretty short, and don't like the way my hair "flutters" in the drafts around the cockpit.  Also, of course, on a colder day, it keeps my noggin warm.  There's an old Swiss saying: "If your feet are cold, put on your hat."   There are a lot of blood vessels in your scalp (which is why minor head wounds bleed so bad) and head coverings slow down the loss of heat.  The helmet also is a convenient place to attach your headset and goggles.

Not everyone does, of course.  Some folks wear a baseball cap, others don't bother with head covering at all.  I admit, when the temperature gets into the 90s, I'll leave the helmet off myself.  Here's Jesse Anglin....

Helmet Choices

There are basically four kinds of flying helmet:
Cloth helmets are cheaper, and cooler in hot weather.  If you're in a warmer clime, you might consider a cloth helmet for summer.  I find leather comfortable enough until the temperatures get in the 90s.

I've always used basic leather helmets.  These come with a fabric lining (nylon, silk, cloth, etc.) to help them slide on easier.

You see leather helmets with fleece linings. Never had one, but they are supposedly extremely warm, to the point where it's itchy.  It's the kind of thing a guy flying all day in winter might wear, but for modern recreational flying, it's not necessary.  In cold weather, I wear a spandex ski mask under my regular helmet, and there's no question that it's warm enough.

Finally, there are hard helmets like motorcycle helmets... the kind military pilots wear.  Some people prefer them due to the extra protection.

Headset/Non-Headset models

Helmets come with and without headset accommodations, which consists of big holes over the ears (for the headset ear cups) and a flap to secure the helmet to the headset bow. I've flown both types in varying circumstances... smooth-side helmet with no headset (NORDO airplane), same helmet with a headset worn atop it (Most non-headset helmets include side flaps with snaps that can be opened to improve hearing), headset-accommodating helmet with a ANR headset, and a smooth-side helmet with a homebuilt low-profile ANR headset worn under it.  Though the smooth-side helmets *do* work with headsets... if you've got the kind with the little flaps over the ears.  It just doesn't give you the best seal over the ears.

My recommendation would be a helmet with the accoutrements to support a headset. With the top flap buckled and judicious use of velcro dots, you can then treat the helmet and headset as one unit; much easier to deal with.  These holes are usually advertised as fitting "David Clark" headsets.  DCs are pretty big, so other headsets should fit. 

I stopped using the smooth-side helmet shown in the pictures when I realized my ANR headset wasn't working to full ability when worn over the helmet.  My current one is a generic headset-type helmet that fits my Flightcom Denali headset just fine.  Here's Drew Fidoe modelling his:


Features

I've talked about novelty helmets vs. "actual" helmets.  The difference is that a real helmet has certain features to make it work better.

Adjustability is one.  I have a rather square face, and have trouble getting a helmet to fit around it (the old joke was that I paid $5 for a haircut...$1 per side).  An "actual" helmet might include a strap across the forehead to help get the top to fit closer to your head.  And, it might include a similar strap across the bottom back to help it fit tight at the nape of the neck.

Another aspect on adjustability is the chin strap. "One size fits all" doesn't work, here, you need a strap that can adjust to different lengths.  I prefer buckles, either of the classic type or the two-D-ring variety.  Don't like snap-type straps, myself...just gives you a couple of settings, and if you cinch it type you have a heavy snap at the end of the strap hang free.

The helmet requires additional straps to support other hardware.  The goggle strap requires that the helmet include either a vertical, fairly long strap in the back or two straps on either side.  The goggles tend to remain in place, but the strap allows you to treat the helmet/goggle combination as a single unit.

If you're going to try where a headset over a "smooth" helmet, make sure it has ear openings.  These are typically covered by leather flaps held closed with snaps.  Open the flaps, and make sure the openings remain clear as the headset closes down.  I used to think these flaps are modern features to permit use with a headset, but you see them way back into '20s.  I think they were an attempt to give a pilot better hearing when wearing his helmet on the ground.

Finally, if you're wearing a headset over the helmet, you'd probably like a flap or something that holds down the top bow of the headset.  I've got snaps on mine, and it works fine.   Strangely enough, though, sometimes the airstream flutters the helmet a bit and I can hear the back of the snaps "clack" against the headset bow.

Finding Them

Because of all the novelty headsets sold, one has to be a bit picky when shopping for a helmet.  Either order them from a vendor of professional aviation items (such as Gibson and Barnes) or buy in person at a shop where you can examine them and try them on.  I've never had to order a helmet, I've always lucked out and found the right kinds for sale at local aviation stores or fly-ins.

I've never bought from them myself, but I hear a lot of good things about Pop's Leather. They custom-build to your measurements, surprisingly cheaply. They're in Turkey, but apparently give quick international service. In the past, they've had a booth in Oshkosh.

Ron Wanttaja

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