This week on 2SER Breakfast, Dictionary special guest Dr Peter Hobbins talked to Tess about some top secret research undertaken at the University of Sydney during World War II.
If you’ve ever been on the Rotor ride at Luna Park, you’ve felt the pressures that gravitational force (aka g-force) can wield on the human body as the centrifugal force pins you to the side of the ride and blood drains away from your head. In the 1930s, fighter pilots were increasingly realising they were suffering these same effects when they were pulling a really tight turn in the air, or pulling out of a steep dive. As the blood was rushing from their head and their heart down into their tummy and their legs, it would lead at first to their vision going grey, then black (hence the term ‘black out’), and then, if they kept pulling that turn, they’d lose consciousness. This wasn’t good for a pilot at any time, but particularly when another enemy plane is on their tail.
By 1940, this had become a big issue.
In September 1940, Frank Cotton, a physiologist at the University of Sydney who specialised in the cardiovascular system, was reading about the Battle of Britain in the newspaper when he had a flash of inspiration and saw a possible solution to the problem. He came up with the idea of a new kind of rubberised flying suit, something like a modern wetsuit, that went from the pilot’s feet to the bottom of their rib cage. Critically, the suit would inflate rapidly when plane under high g, stopping the blood pooling in the pilot’s stomach and legs, and preventing a black out and loss of consciousness.
It was a great idea, but would it work?
When the Japanese entered the war, American and Canadian researchers pooled their research with Australian scientists, and it became apparent that other solutions to the problem were being worked on elsewhere. Cotton’s was deemed to be the best at a technical level and work continued on his prototypes.
A human centrifugal device was built at the University of Sydney so the anti-blackout outfit, christened the Cotton Aerodynamic Anti-G suit, could be tested, and further research done into the effects of g-force on the body. Unfortunately the centrifuge couldn’t cope with the demands and developments took so long that in the end, they didn’t happen quickly enough for the suit to be used in the war.
In 1943 the suit was sent to Darwin for testing in combat, but just as it got there, the Japanese had practically ceased stopped flying over northern Australia. By mid-1944, most of the bugs in the suit’s design had been ironed out, but the pilots also hated wearing it. Wearing a 10 kilo rubber suit in Darwin’s heat and humidity, while waiting for a ‘scramble’ alert to intercept enemy raiders, had little appeal.
The University of Sydney holds a Cotton Aerodynamic Anti-G suit in the collections of the Macleay Museum.
Dr Peter Hobbins, The pigeonhole waltz: Deflating innovation in wartime Australia, Record 2015: The University of Sydney Archives magazine http://sydney.edu.au/arms/archives/record2015.pdf
Rehousing the Cotton Suit, July 2016, Behind the Scenes, Sydney University Museums http://sydney.edu.au/museums/research/bts-jul2016.shtml
About the author
Dr Peter Hobbins is a Royal Australian Historical Society Councillor and a historian of science, technology and medicine at the University of Sydney. His current research focuses on aircraft crashes in Australia over 1920–70. He appears on 2SER for the Dictionary in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Peter!
As part of History Week 2018, Peter will draw upon aircraft accident reports for his talk ‘Death in the air and life on the ground at Mascot Aerodrome’, at Mascot Library & George Hanna Memorial Museum on 8 September 2018. Tickets aren’t available yet, but mark it in your calendars so you don’t miss out: https://www.eventbrite.com.au/e/death-in-the-air-life-on-the-ground-at-mascot-aerodrome-tickets-44355051152
The Dictionary of Sydney has no ongoing funding and needs your help. Make a donation to the Dictionary of Sydney and claim a tax deduction!