When seeing photos or videos of fighter pilots in real life or in movies like Top Gun, you’ve no doubt noticed that they wear masks.

But why is this?

In short, fighter pilots wear masks because they need a supply of oxygen to prevent hypoxia at the high altitudes at which they fly. 

The low air pressure at high altitudes means that fighter pilots would lose the oxygen in their lungs without the mask. So wearing a mask prevents this by providing fighter pilots with a constant supply of oxygen.

These masks also serve other purposes.

The masks connect directly with the fighter pilot’s helmet and provide access to the onboard communications system.

Fighter pilots also depend on their masks to supply oxygen from emergency tanks during ejections.

Fighter pilots always wear masks unless they’re flying at low altitudes or because they’re taking a break to eat or drink in the cockpit. 

2 Reasons Why Fighter Pilots Wear Masks

Fighter pilots wear masks for the following two reasons: 

1. To Maintain Oxygen levels

Fighter pilots wear masks to ensure they have oxygen to breathe.

At the high altitudes that fighter planes fly, there’s much less air pressure.

This low air pressure makes it difficult for fighter pilots to get oxygen into their lungs, so a mask is required.

2. There is No Static Pressurization

Most planes, like commercial and cargo planes, have pressurized cabins that enable passengers to breathe as normal.

But pressurizing a cabin requires large equipment, like pumps and filters, which fighter jets don’t have room for.

As fighter jets are designed to be sleek and lightweight, providing fighter pilots with masks is more practical than installing cabin pressurizing equipment.

So the cabin pressure in fighter jets varies by altitude, and fighter pilots compensate for it with a mask and oxygen tank. 

What Happens if a Fighter Pilot Takes off their Mask?

At normal flying altitudes, a fighter pilot would feel dazed and confused after taking off their mask due to losing oxygen.

Uncorrected, the fighter pilot would lose consciousness within a few minutes. 

If the pilot is flying at lower altitudes, like 25,000 feet, they may be able to fly for a short while without their mask.

But since their cabin isn’t pressurized, the pilot would eventually feel the effects of low air pressure and suffer from hypoxia. 

Even if a pilot safely removed their mask and resisted hypoxia, they’d lose other functions, as the masks that fighter pilots wear also serve other uses, such as the inclusion of a microphone for communication.

So if a fighter pilot took off their mask, they wouldn’t be able to perform their role properly.

How Hypoxia Happens

Hypoxia is caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain.

Hypoxia is caused by any event that either restricts blood flow or reduces the amount of oxygen in a person’s blood.

Flying in a non-pressurized aircraft above 10,000 feet without supplemental oxygen is the most common cause of hypoxia in aviation. 

How Fighter Pilot Oxygen Masks Work

  • The oxygen mask connects to the pilot’s helmet on one end.
  • There’s a hose and wire attached to the mask’s other end.
  • The hose and wire attach to a connector on either the seat or the emergency parachute and provide an emergency oxygen supply. 
  • The emergency oxygen supply is enough for 15 minutes, and it’s intended to save a pilot’s life if they eject from an altitude higher than 10,000 feet.
  • The same connector also has another hose and wire combination that directly connects with the plane. 
  • This second wire and hose connect with the plane’s communication systems.
  • If the plane has multiple seats, the second wire and hose will connect to an interphone control panel that lets the pilot choose between multiple channels. 

Do Fighter Pilots Breathe Pure Oxygen?

Fighter pilots breathe pure oxygen only at very high altitudes.

Modern planes have onboard oxygen generators that provide the pilot with unlimited pure oxygen. But these generators aren’t normally used to provide pure oxygen. 

Instead, the plane’s onboard oxygen system will deliver a mix of oxygen and air, which consists of several other elements.

The exact oxygen concentration of the mixture depends on the altitude.

The higher the altitude, the higher the percentage of oxygen. 

How Fighter Pilots Drink and Eat While Wearing a Mask

Fighter pilots drop their masks multiple times during a flight to drink water. Dehydration can be as dangerous as hypoxia for fighter pilots, so they carry a water bottle in the cabin. 

Fighter pilots also drop their masks off to eat protein bars and other packed foods during longer missions.

Why Airline Pilots Don’t Wear Masks

Airline pilots don’t wear masks because the commercial airliners that airline pilots fly have fully pressurized cabins.

These onboard pressurization systems are automatic and ensure that everyone onboard has an adequate oxygen supply.

So airline pilots only need to wear masks during emergencies when the plane loses pressure. 

Why Fighter Pilots Wear Helmets

Fighter pilots wear helmets to protect their heads.

Without them, fighter pilots would bang their heads against their plane’s canopy during turbulence or abrupt maneuvers.

Fighter pilot helmets also have other functions. 

The helmets reduce noise, are used to mount the oxygen mask, and contain a visor with targeting displays. 

In conclusion:

  • Fighter pilots wear masks because they need an oxygen supply since their cabins aren’t pressurized, unlike commercial planes.
  • Fighter planes don’t have pressurized cabins since pressurizing equipment is large and heavy, and fighter planes are designed to be lightweight, aerodynamic, and are generally small.
  • Fighter pilots always wear their masks at high altitudes since they would otherwise suffer from hypoxia.
  • It’s relatively safe for fighter pilots to remove their masks for short periods of time at lower altitudes to eat or drink.
  • Commercial airline pilots don’t wear masks because commercial airliners have pressurized cabins. 

Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.

Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.

Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.