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80's era US Navy SPH-3 restoration


Vark_07
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Vark_07

Greetings everyone !
Let me introduce you my latest and biggest restoration project to date, a nice example of US Navy SPH-3 I've recently put together.

 

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Preamble

 

After a first step in the helicopter helmet range with an APH-5A, by the time I wrote my review I had already grown impatient to add another iconic rotary wing naval helmet to my collection, thus "SPH-3" immediately popped up in my mind.


While US Army helicopter helmets like APH-5A, AFH-1 and SPH-4 are not hard to find in Europe and even common at some retailers' (the OD green shells sell themselves, must be the "Vietnam touch" effect), the same doesn't go for their naval counterparts.
So, tired of waiting for an hypothetical SPH-3 to come around some day, I searched the American militaria market to fulfill my envy.

Alas, I wasn't thrilled by the scarce complete examples available either, so after looking with curiosity at the "stripped down" demilitarized shells at FH.com, I came up with the idea to restore an incomplete shell that would match my liking, aesthetically speaking mostly.
I laid my eyes on this colorful example because of its apparent good condition, and simple but gorgeous integral tape job.

 

Once again, this project couldn't have been possible without the assistance of my friend Bradford (Wayward Son) who served as a local intermediary for the transaction (FH won't send shells overseas), then the international delivery to France. Much appreciated 🙂 !

 


Unpacking the shell

 

The demilitarized shell, sold as former US Navy (I'll take their word for it) came to me in good used condition with a preserved edgeroll, webbing / leather suspension assembly over a styrofoam liner, partial swivel boom mount, and a full nylon earcup retention harness.

 

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Pictures (C) Flighthelmet.com

 

The main issues with it were -as I expected looking at the shop's picures- a cracked screw retention on the left Ramshorn housing, missing earphones and their foam inserts, and a messy suspension assembly (because of a few missing crown straps' nuts).
The lack of both foam spacers (crumbled) and side crossed bungees inside of the shell's right earcup bulge is of lesser importance (and couldn't be seen from the shop pictures anyway).
Apart from this, it just needed a good cleanup and putting back the missing parts together.


Despite from being extremely dirty from use and storage, the awesome well-crafted tricolor reflective taping presents the usual enjoyable patina sported by every naval helmet worthy of the name, with lots of scratches and wear.
It features an integral tape job mostly made of white, with a large inverted T-shaped pattern made of red and black tape.
The visor housing's contours are nicely circled with a thin strip of red tape (cracked in the steep-angled corners), along with 2 square-shaped adhesive residues of removed velcro loop symetrically placed from the centerline.

 

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No sign of pilot or squadron ID, the only personal marking I've found is a green marker inscription "211" on one earcup (see later).
I've tried to search for an hypothetical matching amongst the old USN rotary wing squadrons' emblemas (deactivated or renamed), helicopter decorations and aviators' helmets in the cockpit at Seaforces.org, but I eventually gave up, for I quickly noticed countless units sport these colors in their insigna, not to mention that red / black bands are very commonly used in tape jobs no matter the squadron's colors.

 

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Here's a montage of some of the possibly matching USN chopper units emblemas I've found - before letting go... 😅
So if anybody recognizes this particular tape pattern / has a clue for a squadron ID, please let me know !

 

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On a side note, I found on the web market an SPH-3 sporting a very similar (yet roughly done) inverted T-shaped tape job, I'm sharing it as comparison.

This one allegedly belonged to the HS-9 Sea Griffins.
 

 

Kit list

 

The refurbishment kit list was, as you surely expect, a pretty long one, with a mix of used, new, and "new from old stock" parts.
Before placing my order, I patiently collected pictures online (some were found on this very forum 😁) for both inspiration and reference purpose.

 

  • Gentex Ramshorn dual visor set with smoked & clear visor assemblies (used)
  • Two USN white knobs assemblies
  • Complete boom assembly : thumb screw / long boom frame / round swivel mount / U-173 10" cord
  • M-87/AIC microphone (used)
  • Rear CX-4832/AR Navy comm cord (used) + 8" U-172/173 extension cord
  • Chinstrap + padding
  • Black ear seals
  • One foot of 2"-wide adhesive loop tape
  • Small parts such as screws, boom cord clip, and cable shell retention


1509840066_3-restauration(0).jpg.d9b2c7f58e5bd454537fcb11dc1ea9d0.jpg
This illustrates most of the parts listed above (some came later from separate orders).

 


Restoration process


The shell, even if in good condition, was very dirty from operational use and storage as I previously wrote, so the first step had to be a good cleanup with a wet soaped tissue.

Once dry, a second gentle rubbing (this time with White Spirit) helped me remove most of the blackened dust-embedded adhesive residues and additional friction marks - with no excess, to keep a good share of the patina.

 

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Original -dirty- state.

 

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Comparison between a cleaned Ramshorn extension (left) and the other still in original state (right).


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Prior to putting back the new adhesive velcro loop, the glue residues had to be removed (scraping + White Spirit).


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I was pleased to find on the inside of the visor housing a Gentex foil label, so buying a Gentex dual-visor set was a good call !


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The white Gentex earcups (stamped SONEX T.M - certainly a sub-contractor) were fitted with stiff and worn grey ear seals that were to be found on many SPH-3 / 3-B examples of the late 60's to late 70's, mostly paired with the early leather-tabbed earcup harness.
However, given a majority of black ear seals I had found on pictures showing the late harness type present on my helmet, I chose to replace these with black ones too (see picture below, and further explainations later).


Found also in my toolbox some matching screws to put the loose suspension liner's straps back into tension.
Overall, the inside of the shell is in a pretty decent condition.

 

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Half-way of the restoration process, prior to assembling the visors (still waiting for the last parts to arrive at that time).


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The holes drilled in the rear easily gave away the vertical position of the CX-4832/AR comm cord.


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The cracked left Ramshorn retention had previously been glued back together, but was still missing chunks of plastic on each side as you can see, so there were gaps between the piece's edges to the housing, giving it an uncomplete and fragile look (left pic).
Sadly, it occured to be impossible to remove the housing to fix the crack properly, the 3 screws being stuck by rust (or perhaps more glue ?)...
Consequently, I had to take the glued broken piece off, then trimmed it with a scalpel blade until it could slide under the screw with its edges joining the housing. Once in the correct position, I just glued it back together to the Ramshorn's edges.


At first, I thought I would paint over the repair, but I finally decided to leave it this way (last pic on the right).
It still looks cracked, but at least feels "as one" with the Ramshorn housing, which by the way is a common issue with flight helmets (one can find many APH / HGU / SPH examples with similar shell / housing cracks close to screws).

 

 

⚠️ Important notice

 

I'd like to add that I chose to alter the aspect of some "new from old stock" parts.

I'm aware it might look odd to some of you guys, but they looked too intact to my liking, and therefore contrasted exaggeratedly to the well-worn state of the shell.
As a result, I applied an artificial ageing to the visor knobs, chinstrap padding and snaps, yet in accordance to the usual wear observed for these elements in the inspiration photos gleaned on the web.

 

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A few dents were made with the tip of a screw driver ; then followed the "cosmetic treatment" with a light yellowing wash + touches of black & brown grime (all made with acrylic paint) applied to the initially snow-white knobs.

 

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This characteristic used "fluffy" aspect was obtained after simply rubbing the padding with the scratching side of a kitchen sponge.

 

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A gentle rubbing with acid removed the shine of the black paint, and gave the metal a slightly corroded aspect.

 

 


Completed helmet

 

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Sage Green M-87/AIC boom assembly

 

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Details of the comm setup elements.

 

 

 

Research & remarks

 

Little did I know about this SPH-3 aside from the shop's pictures and its alleged "US Navy" origin when I placed my order, but looking closely once I had it in my hands, a few evidence and deductions came to mind. So, I searched for informations in order to hopefully put an approximate date and a correct nomenclature on it.
There's unfortunately very few online documentation about the SPH-3, but the fact it's the SPH-4 clone brother eventually helped a lot, by working by analogy.

 

 

  • NVG setup

 

First thing I noticed were the two unusual velcro adhesive remains symetrically placed on the visor housing, and the presence of a snap stud under the Ramshorn extensions on each side of the shell.
As we well know on this forum, the typical USN / USMC distress strobe setup, no matter the aircraft, is a single (most commonly right-sided) 2-inch velcro square, not two.

 

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These clues strongly suggest the use of an early Full Face Mask AN/PVS-5 NVG setup, thanks to the SPH-4 analogies I had noticed below, and the PM contributions of MohawkALSE and Wayward Son who confirmed my guess (thanks !).

 

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These NVGs would have been fitted with an upper nylon Vee-strap to the visor housing's velcros, and 2 additional side straps with snap fasteners to the side studs.

 


On a side note, the lateral stud / strap retentions evocative of this early NVG system were to be replaced with late AN/PVS-5 setups (intermediate Full Face Mask, then Modified Face Plate) by "surgical tubing" fixed to the shell with characteristic Adel clamps, as well as a rear counterweight fixed with velcro.


1845071835_8(3).jpg.a9b5cafad8831f237463667115ccc8ac.jpg
Examples of shell configuration with ulterior AN/PVS-5 steups that differ from mine (on SPH-4s).

LEFT : intermediate Full Face Mask

RIGHT : Modified Face Plate


Since there is no evidence of such clamps or rear velcro residues on my shell, it seems safe to say it was set up for the initial AN/PVS-5 Full Face Mask.

My reasonable guess is that this helmet belonged to a pilot or copilot, for early NVGs were not as widely used among rotary wing crews at that time.

 

To close that matter, as my contributors both pointed out, since we're still talking about a naval helmet, the velcro squares most likely served the dual purpose of distress strobe attachment point as well as anchor points for the AN/PVS-5 system.

 

 

  • Harness, liner, & chinstrap


Among the clues leading to the early to late 80's era lies the OD nylon-type (Nomex) earcup harness fitted with 2 dual-snap sets on each side (upper set for optional O² mask, lower set for chinstrap) and a velcro nape adjustment. This earcup assy comes along with a webbing / leather suspension over the styrofoam shell liner.

Overall, this internal configuration looks quite identical to the 1978 (and later) SPH-4 helmets'.

 

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It's good to mention that this nylon harness is a later variant of the initial (mid 60's to late 70's) SPH-3 (single visor), -3B (dual visor) & Army SPH-4 harness that featured the iconic leather reinforcement tabs for the chinstrap / mask assemblies (see below). Then, according to my searches, during the late 70's / early 80's, SPH-3Bs abandoned the leather-tabbed harnesses and were retrofitted with full-nylon examples, while the SPH-3Cs were directly issued this way slightly later.
After that, during the late 80's and forth, SPH-3C and SPH-4B started to abandon the styrene shell liner w/ suspension straps assembly for Form Fit Liners, while keeping the Nomex earcup harnesses.


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From left to right :
- Early leather-tabbed harness w/ webbing suspension over styrene liner,
- Intermediate ("1978 SPH-4 type") full nylon dual-snap harness w/ webbing suspension over styrene liner,
- Late full nylon dual-snap harness over Form Fit Liner.


Noteworthy, SPH-3s, as well as SPH-4s, featured four distinctive types of chinstraps (with minor sub-versions) throughout their operational lifetime, that were successively issued to improve the poor initial retention.

 

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By chronological order of appearance :

  1. Single snap on each side,
  2. V-shaped with two snaps on each side,
  3. "T-end" dual-snap on each side,
  4. Dual-snap on one side, and screw + nut assembly through one of the 2 lower snap studs on the other.


Type 1 and 2 were used with the leather-tabbed harnesses, while 3 and 4 were specific of the helmets using the dual-snap Nomex assembly.

Since my nylon harness doesn't feature any hole through one of the lower snap studs that would have revealed a screw / nut assembly, the correct chinstrap for this helmet was undoubtedly the double "T-end" version (3-).

 

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  • Tape job

 

Another detail that certainly helps relating this helmet to the 80's is the tape job.

Because it is integrally covered in tape with a large part of the design being white, it matches the USN / USMC S.A.R. requirements for ditched aircrews that came out in the early 80's.


I've read that the predominent white color was chosen because it was the one that helped spotting a helmet at sea level from the highest altitude (1200 feet), compared to other colored tape. Consequently, from this point on, crews had to complete the partial tape jobs or cover the painted artwork on their flight helmets up to 100% tape.
A 1981 Coast Guards' instructions booklet online reading indeed talks of "a minimum of 80% of the visor housing & outer shell", but according to many sources -including retired USN aviators, this became 100% in a matter of 2-3 years.

 

Apart from the Coast Guard's booklet, I've not managed to get a more precise date of when the full-tape requirement came into print for USN / USMC squadrons, because sources slightly differ from 79 to 85 - and it seems obvious that it hasn't been done in one day anyway.
In any case, the period of use of my shell lies within or ulteriorly to this major evolution's introduction.

 

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  • Nomenclature

 

The lack of rear and inside label doesn't lead to any concrete size or nomenclature for this helmet, unfortunately.
At least, the Gentex labels and markings I've discovered on the earcups and inside the visor housing prove that it was manufactured by the Gentex Corp. or one of its sub-contractors (if this was to be the case, it would be SONEX T.M - as stamped on the earcups).
The SPH-3 being poorly documented on the web and the fact that -3B and -3C versions look pretty much alike didn't help determining easily of which type my helmet is.

 

It is known that -3Bs were made of fiberglass + epoxy (and heavier than SPH-4s) while -3C were lighter using kevlar layers + epoxy, but looking in the inside, I just cannot tell by the material's aspect only - and I don't have the size / weight figures that might help as well.


I've also read that these shells were supplied in only two sizes, Regular and Extra Large.

Alas, the visor housing and visors appear to be the same no matter the shell's size on dual-visor SPH-3 and -4  (hint courtesy of the spare parts' market !), contrary to APH-6-type Ramshorn assemblies that came in Medium / Large sizes, so the visor housing's foil label didn't lead to any sizing information here.
Judging by its massive looks, however (it almost protrudes from a 30cm-wide shelf), and given that the outer shell circumference (~35 inches) is greater than every Large-size APH / HGU helmet in my collection, I reasonably assess that it's an XL shell.

 

That being said, back to the nomenclature, I've found online a very interesting unissued 1991 SPH-3C (box and shell labelled as such) coming with a 1987 booklet, and a couple of pics from a SPH-3B booklet dated 1970 to compare it with.

 

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MINT SPH-3C - Pictures (C) Bell's Aviation

 

As you can see on the montage above, both booklet's photo and the helmet feature the same configuration : dual-snap nylon earcup harness with black ear seals, styrene liner with suspension webbing, and the "T-end" / both sides chinstrap.
Apart from the grey ear seals originally coming with my example, this -3C shell is showing the very same configuration as mine.

 

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The SPH-3B booklet above (dated 1970) I've dug out looks different, with cover picture featuring the USN decal on the visor housing, leather-tabbed early harness, single-snap chinstrap and grey ear seals.
I haven't found anything to back this statement so this is just an educated guess here, but taking all of the previous observations into account, I cautiously deduce that SPH-3 helmets with a contract date of 1987 or later were therefore called SPH-3Cs.

 

The fact that my helmet sports every feature of the C-version with the original B-version grey ear seals comforts me in the opinion it is more likely an SPH-3B that had been retroffited with the full nylon harness (keeping the original earcup assemblies as they were), rather than an early SPH3-C that would have been unlikely fitted with older ear seals.

That's the reason why I found relevant to choose the black ear seals to restore it.

 

 

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Conclusion

 

As stated before on the begenning of the previous part, I knew very little about this helmet when I bought it online, and without solid evidence such as a contract date on a label, there will be no way to be 100% sure of a precise dating and nomenclature for it.
However, based on the previous research work and deductions that unveiled most of its mystery, all the evidence points to a retrofitted SPH3-B used during the 80's period.


Thank you for reading this all the way, I hope you enjoyed this project !
All in all, that was a lot of fun, work and research, for a very rewarding result in the end.

 

As always, I'll gladly appreciate you to leave your opinion, or any helpful comment & additional information 😉.

Cheers !
Gauthier / Vark_07

 

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hink441

Very nice helmet. I really enjoyed your excellent write up. The results of your refurbishment are truly outstanding!! Well done!!

 

I really like these old helmets especially the Navy Helo helmets. 
 

Here is an old pic of me wearing my helmet with HM-14.  We were an airborne mine countermeasures squadron. This picture was taken in 1987 and was part of “Operation Kindle Liberty”. This picture was taken while sweeping the Panama Canal flying in a Sikorsky RH-53D. Fun days. 
 

 

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mohawkALSE

Nice work, Came out good.   

Note on the chin straps, the Number 4 strap in the comparison pic I don't think was ever used on SPH-3s.  I think they ended things with the dual snap setup as number 3 shows.   The number 4 chin strap is what the SPH-4 went to around 1978 til they stopped producing SPH-4s and moved on the the SPH-4B that had a fully improved retention assembly and new chin strap style.  SPH-4s themselves never used the number 3 style dual snap, that to my knowledge is a NAVAIR only piece on SPH-3s.  The number 1 and 2 straps were both used on the SPH-4s with earlier style ear cup retention with the leather tabs as stated.  I forget which year it was exactly the number 2 V shaped twin snap style came out but Id say it was mid 70s.  Not sure if the Navy ever started using those or not like the Army.  I recall reading a handful of various articles from the just post Vietnam War era in Army Aviation Digest and PM magazine covering all the various safety changes to the SPH-4 that had been happening.  Ive mostly seen Navy helmets with either the single snap per side original chin strap on older examples or the later T end small pair of dual snap chin straps they used up til they retired the SPH-3s.

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Vark_07

Thanks a lot for your kind comments ! 😄

I'm really glad you guys enjoyed the writeup (took me quite some time !).

 

A line of text was erased for reason unknown, sorry about that. I was mentionning in it I chose not to replace the earphones and their foam inserts, for I couldn't afford 90 more dollars in parts that were not going to be of any use or even seen on display (so technically, the shell is not entirely refurbished, but I'm fine with that ^^).

 

A couple more pics on proper location, sitting on the helmet shelf of the living room.

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17 hours ago, mohawkALSE said:

Note on the chin straps, the Number 4 strap in the comparison pic I don't think was ever used on SPH-3s [...]

I've seen an SPH-3 during my picture research featuring this kind of chinstrap (can't find it back), but 99% of the examples found with it were indeed SPH-4s.
I'll take your word for it, let's assume this lonely SPH-3 could have been wrongly put together with an SPH-4 harness 😉.
Thanks for the valuable info, as always !

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  • 1 month later...
horridohutch

Beautiful restoration while maintaining the original graphics.... looks very nice. I really try to minimize anything I will do to a helmet. What you have done here is perfect!

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