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In 1918, flying was so unsafe that a giant rubber suit seemed like a good idea

An aviator's safety suit, ready for impact.
An aviator's safety suit, ready for impact.
Google Patents
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Have you ever wondered what the love-child of the Michelin man and an actuary would look like? Augusto Rodal's 1918 invention gives us an idea.

His patented "Safety Suit for Aviators" was the Havana inventor's attempt to create a safe way for pilots to ride in planes. The idea was to create a constant cushion against falls while keeping the arms and legs free. As the patent application claims:

A suitable hose or the like, containing compressed air, is guided in serpentine convolutions around the body and the head of an aviator.

The suit wasn't just a way for aviators to stay safe: Rodale recommended it for "automobilists" as well. Sadly for him, the safety suit never caught on — probably because people didn't want to wear a giant rubber tube every time they flew a plane.

The safety suit reflects a different era for air safety

So why did Rodal think his air-safety suit could possibly be a good idea? Was he insane? Actually, no. The idea is a reflection of how dangerous it was to fly in the 1910s.

1918, after all, was the last year of World War I's dogfights, a new type of aerial warfare that people didn't yet understand. The practice resulted in heavy casualties: according to The World War I Databook, the worst aircrew fatalities were suffered by the United Kingdom, which lost 6,170 men. Unstable wooden planes didn't help, and countries recommended extreme measures to keep pilots safe. The United States, for example, didn't recommend that pilots use parachutes — it was preferable to maneuver a damaged plane to safety and hope that it hit the ground.

With those conditions in mind, an air-safety suit makes a lot of sense.

But another airplane invention from the 1910s turned out to be more practical. This device is credited to General Benjamin Foulois, who learned to fly some of the first planes ever purchased by the United States Armed Forces. According to Foulouis' memoirs, he equipped his plane with a leather cinch that he took from the Army stables. Today, we call it a seatbelt.

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