How a helmet is made. Credit: Icaro2000
The most important, advanced and technical piece of gear you own is your brain. From beginner to world champion, you have to keep it safe.
You are expected to wear a helmet from day one in all free-flight sports, and in many countries (although not all) it’s a legal requirement, even when groundhandling. Specific helmets are designed for specific activities. They must meet corresponding European Standards (EN) to be sold in Europe. Look for the CE mark inside your helmet. The requirements vary slightly by activity so it is a good idea to use a helmet certified for airborne sports according to the EN-966 standard.
The two most important properties for a helmet are the shock absorption (where you fall head-first onto something) and penetration resistance (when something falls on your head).
How free-flight helmets are tested. Credit: Icaro2000
To test a helmet it is first force-aged by heat, cold and UV radiation. Standardised tests are then carried out. For a flight helmet, shock absorption is tested with a drop of 1.5m onto different flat or pointed surfaces. The penetration test is done by dropping a 3kg pointed cone onto different parts of the helmet from the height of one metre. The cone should of course not touch the headform inside the helmet.
The chin-strap is subjected to a strength test, similar to the strength test of the lines of a paraglider. Finally, the standard also prescribes matters such as field of vision and freedom of movement.
A helmet should stay on your head during and after an impact. Therefore, it is important to choose a helmet that fits you well. It should be about two fingers over your eyebrows. Shake your head while fitting it and tip it from the back to your nose. It shouldn’t come off.
If you are into other sports such as skiing, climbing or riding, it’s tempting to use one helmet for all. Be aware that the standards for a flight helmet are the strictest. If you want to combine activities, use your EN-966 flight helmet for the other sports, not the other way around.
Bike helmets are not suitable. There is no penetration test and the shock absorption test is lower. A similar warning goes for climbing helmets. The standard for those only needs to provide protection from above (rockfall). Requirements for the highest standard for ski helmets, EN-1077A, and for riding helmets are also lighter than for air sports.
Full face or not?
The chin guard is not part of the testing standard. Whether a chin guard (full-face helmet) is useful or not is a topic of discussion. In the end, the choice is yours. A good reason to use a full-face helmet or chin protector is if you are a hang glider pilot, flying head first. During towing when the cable fails, the tow release may hit your face. Good unbreakable glasses, a visor or a full-face helmet protect against damage. If you are a tandem pilot, a full-face helmet will protect your face from the back of the passenger’s helmet.
A good reason not to use a full-face helmet is the impaired vision to the sides, which may lead to you overlooking air traffic around you. Also, the covered ears can affect your hearing. Using radio ear-pieces for that is a solution, but comes with its own challenges such as failing connections.
Find out more
British test body Satra is one of the few organisations that provides a free description of tests for helmets. See Satra.com.