Portsmouth, Virginia - Exposure to extremely loud noise can result in permanent hearing loss. Arguably no better example of this risk is the noise levels experienced by U.S. Navy pilots.
Logging thousands of hours in aircraft that bellow jet noise at incredible decibel levels, hearing protection for pilots is an imperative part of their safety equipment.
Naval Medical Center Portsmouth (NMCP) and its branch clinics are helping pilots by fitting them with Communication Ear Plugs (CEPs), which are custom ear molds made from silicone that improve hearing protection and provide a way to communicate with others.
"Usually when they're using the traditional hearing protection like the muffs and the foam, pilots have a hard time communicating," explained Lt. Ryan Broyles, Occupational Audiology department head. "We use soft silicone and shoot the impression into their ear so that it makes a custom-molded piece.
Then the piece gets sent off to a company and they basically take all the communication devices, the electronics, and put them into the mold so that when it comes back each person has a custom-fitted mold."
According to Naval Air Forces Atlantic (AIRLANT), every pilot within its area of responsibility will have triple protection for their ears by the end of 2018. This means they will have a helmet that has active noise cancellation, a noise cancelling microphone, and something in the ears that can be either the foam earplugs or the CEPs. The CEP serves as a more versatile third layer because it includes a way to electronically communicate along with hearing protection.
"The pilots tend to prefer the custom ones because it's easier to block out sound and they can get the perfect fit every time," Broyles said.
Non-custom earplugs currently used can be uncomfortable and must be inserted perfectly each time to provide the correct level of protection. The earmuffs can be hot, bulky and often impractical.
Additionally, in order to communicate effectively while still blocking harmful noise, ordinary earplugs often do not work effectively. Because ears are unique, custom-made hearing protection can provide the perfect fit and repeatable effectiveness.
"This was my first time getting the ear molds done," said Lt. j.g. Jakie Scott, from Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 121. "Having better coverage and a tighter seal around the ears is extremely beneficial for us."
"Once you get them locked in, it stays in place," Broyle explained. "Since it is molded perfectly to the ear, it's comfortable to wear. The material used to shoot it into the ear to make the mold is a soft material, so over time, even if the wearer is moving or sweating, the mold does not work its way out of the ear."
The response from CEP-fitted personnel has been encouraging so far, with calls asking if everyone in many squadrons can get CEPs.
"I have yet to hear a negative review about the process or the finished product," Broyle added.