Canadian innovation in aviation medicine: Beyond the Franks Flying Suit

December 16, 2020 | Author: Guest post
2 MIN READ

By Dr. George Rakovich, MD, FRCSC


In honour of Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the Second World War, the following vignette was written by the Royal College’s History and Heritage Committee. This vignette was written not only to recognize the important contributions of physicians during the war, but also to honour all those who have made sacrifices for our freedom.  


Wilbur Franks, professor in the Banting and Best Department of Medical Research, posing here with the Franks Flying Suit – the world’s first G-suit, which in the Second World War, enabled allied fighter pilots to remain conscious when executing sharp turns at high speeds. (Photo credit: Jack Marshall and the University of Toronto Archives)

During the Second World War, the evolving nature of warfare required military aircraft to fly at altitudes and speeds that subjected pilots and crew to previously unknown extremes of psychological and physiological stress (1, 2). Canadian research teams would become pioneers in the field of aviation medicine (1,3).

Perhaps one of the most recognized Canadian innovations was the Franks anti-gravity or G-suit (a.k.a. the Franks Flying Suit  (3). This innovation stemmed from the requirement for supplemental oxygen at high altitudes in a rarefied atmosphere. Previous oxygen mask designs were flawed: they tended to waste oxygen and were inefficient due to poor fit and poorly balanced air flow (1,4). In addition, residual moisture in available oxygen mixtures was prone to freezing at the low temperatures found at high altitude, which clogged lines and valves within the system and hindered oxygen delivery (1,4). Canadian researchers were among the first to develop a mask that successfully addressed these issues, and their design was subsequently adopted by the Royal Canadian Air Force  and Royal Air Force on many flights throughout the war(1). Key features of the Canadian design were later incorporated into British and American models (1).

Research in aviation medicine during the Second World War was conducted at several Canadian Universities, including the University of Toronto, McGill University, Western University, and the University of Alberta, and spanned such diverse topics as the psychological evaluation of flight candidates, the effects of noise on communications and mental fatigue, and night vision (1-4). As a result, by the end of the Second World War, Canada was at the forefront of research in this field (1).

References/further reading

  1. Stewart, C. B. 1947. Canadian Research in Aviation Medicine. Public Affairs: A Maritime Quarterly for Discussion of Public Affairs
  2. Ryan, R. W., & Hall, G. E. 1941. Some Aspects of Aviation Medicine. Canadian Medical Association journal44(3), 227.
  3. Smith, G. 1999. The Franks Flying Suit in Canadian Aviation Medicine History, 1939–1945. Canadian Military History8(2),
  4. Whittingham, H. E. 1955Medical science and problems of flying. British medical journal1(4909), 303.

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