- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2006


The same kinds of earplugs sold to Def Leppard, the Moody Blues, Nine Inch Nails and other rock bands are 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 when he flew F-16 jet fighters in December. Gen. Bradley was so impressed that he directed his staff to tap into unused funds to expedite the purchase of the earplugs.

“These things are phenomenal,” Gen. 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.

To protect against hearing loss, most pilots use disposable foam earplugs. 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 in Ohio.

The lab has been working on the plugs with two private contractors: Manufactured Assemblies Corp. of Dayton and Westone Laboratories Inc. of Colorado Springs.

The earplugs are similar to those that Westone sells to rock bands to protect musicians’ hearing and to allow them to hear the sounds of the individual instruments and voices more clearly. The new plugs are made of silicon, with speakers implanted inside.

About 300 pilots and maintenance workers are using the new plugs, which cost more than $200 a pair. The old foam plugs cost a tiny fraction of that and are thrown away after use.

Gen. Bradley and Mr. Hall say the new plugs will save money in the long run by reducing hearing loss and disability payments. The Department of Veterans Affairs made 384,000 hearing-disability payments in fiscal 2004, including 85,000 payments for complete hearing loss.

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