January 10, 2006
Rock stars’ earplugs draw raves
By James Hannah
A set of new military earplugs, identical to those used by rock bands such as Def Leppard, the Moody Blues and Nine-Inch Nails, are attached to an Air Force flight helmet. — Al Behrman / AP Photo
DAYTON, Ohio — The same kind of earplugs sold to Def Leppard, the Moody Blues, Nine Inch Nails and other rock bands are slowly starting to be used by U.S. military pilots to protect hearing, muffle cockpit noise and ease communications.
Lt. Gen. John Bradley, chief of the Air Force Reserve, tested the earplugs himself when he flew F-16 jet fighters in December. Bradley was so impressed that he directed his staff to tap into unused funds to speed up purchasing the earplugs.
“These things are phenomenal,” Bradley said. “It cuts out more noise, and I can hear much better. I want to buy this for every Reserve I have who wears a helmet.”
Unlike commercial aircraft, military planes usually have no insulation in the cockpit to help muffle engine and wind noise. And the fans that cool cockpit equipment can be loud.
To protect against hearing loss, most pilots use foam earplugs designed to be disposable. Some pilots keep the plugs loose in the ear or cut the plugs in half so they can hear the speaker in their helmet used to communicate with their crew and other pilots. Or they crank up the volume on the speaker so it can penetrate the foam plug.
The new earplugs originally were developed for aircraft maintenance workers who often had to stand next to deafening jet engines.
“The pilots got jealous,” said John Hall, audio engineer in the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
The lab has been working on the plugs with two private contractors: Manufactured Assemblies Corp. of Dayton and Westone Laboratories Inc. of Colorado Springs, Colo.
The earplugs are similar to ones Westone sells to rock bands, said Karl Cartwright, head of new product development for the company. Musicians use the plugs not only to protect their hearing, but also to hear the sounds of the individual instruments and voices more clearly.
The new plugs are made of silicon, with the speakers implanted inside. Each plug is designed to fit the ears of individual pilots and have small vents that relieve pressure created with changes in altitude that can rupture eardrums.
Two years ago, pilots were allowed to check out the custom plugs during flight tests of the new F-22 fighter jet at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
“Everybody gave it thumbs up — not only for communications clarity but noise reduction,” Hall said.
About 300 pilots and maintenance workers already are using the new plugs, he said.
The new plugs cost more than $200 a pair. While the old foam plugs cost a tiny fraction of that, they are thrown away after use.
Bradley and Hall believe the new plugs will save money in the long run by reducing hearing loss and disability payments to pilots and maintenance workers.
The Department of Veterans Affairs made 384,000 hearing-disability payments in its 2004 fiscal year, including 85,000 payments for complete hearing loss.
Military analyst Loren Thompson of The Lexington Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said the new plugs sound like a sensible investment.
“This is a relatively cheap invention that pays big dividends,” Thompson said. “The Air Force spends the better part of a million dollars training each pilot, and it loses a percentage of those pilots to service-related disabilities such as hearing loss.”
Philip Coyle, a senior adviser with the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, used the old foam plugs when he flew in military aircraft.
Reducing the cost of the new plugs might be difficult because they are custom-fitted, Coyle said. One question will be whether the new plugs are reliable and how well they hold up, he said.
“If you had to just buy one pair for every U.S. pilot, certainly that’s something the United States can afford,” Coyle said. “The proof in the pudding here is whether the pilots like them for a long period of time.”
I use the custom earbuds that musicians use (Ultimate Ears). Cost about $600 total, great for travelling. They are like noise cancelling headphones without the bulk and with better sound quality. Efficient as heck too, no need to turn up the volume much.
They've been around a long time. Old news for race car drivers and musicians.
I have a set of the Insta-mold custom earplugs. They are very, very comfortable and very, very quiet and not too expensive. They are so quiet that I can't use them at the range--I can't hear any range commands. I do use them for motorcycle racing.
I would love to get a set of their electronic plugs but it's big, BIG bucks.
There's a company that sells a civilian headset product for pilots based on their technology.