Celebrating Wilbur Rounding Franks, inventor of the G-Suit

News Article / March 4, 2021

Click on the photo under “Image Gallery” to see more photos.

By Eric Jeannotte, with files from the University of Toronto and the Canadian Encyclopedia 

He’s on your six, waiting for the right moment to fire leaden hail your way. Try as you might, you can’t seem to shake him, but you need to turn the tide of the fight. 

Holding tightly to the stick, you push with all of your strength, initiating a steep dive in the hopes that the enemy pilot will follow you… and he does. 

Now, if you pull up fast enough, he may not react in time, which would give you the advantage. 

You pull back on the stick hard, breaking your descent and sending your aircraft into an abrupt climb. You hear metal cracking, as if the wings are going to break off, and you feel crushed by a ten-ton weight. Before long, you grow faint and eventually, you lose consciousness.   

Many fighter pilots suffered such a fate during the Second World War. However, Wilbur Rounding Franks changed that situation with an invention that inspired the very design of the pressure suits worn by astronauts today.

Born 120 years ago in Weston, Ontario, Mr. Franks graduated in medicine at the University of Toronto. He trained in cancer research under F.W. Banting and became head of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s wartime medical research after Mr. Banting's death. That work led to his involvement in the aviation field.

After being commissioned into the Royal Canadian Air Medical Corp, he started to work actively to solve the blackout problems that plagued pilots during high G-force manoeuvres.

Thanks to his research, he was able to design the Franks Flying Suit, an anti-gravity suit also called the “G-Suit”, which he personally tested, making him the first person to be protected from the effects of radial acceleration in an aircraft. To support his project, Dr. Franks built the first Canadian human centrifuge, used to reproduce various G-forces at high speeds similar to those experienced by pilots during manoeuvres in combat aircraft. His humble wartime laboratory became the RCAF Institute of Aviation Medicine, which itself became the Defence and Civil Institute of Environment Medicine, and is now Defence Research and Development Canada.

If the suit was deemed uncomfortable by the first pilots to wear it, the invention nonetheless started saving pilots’ lives in 1942, when it was used in a real combat situation during invasion operations in North Africa.

In 1984, Dr. Franks was inducted into Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame. Since his invention allowed to save the lives of fighter pilots, Britain awarded him the Order of the British Empire, and the United States Armed Forces presented him the Legion of Merit. To underline his outstanding achievement in aerospace medicine, the Aerospace Medical Association awarded him the Theodore C. Lyster Award, as well as the Eric Liljencrantz Award for his research into the problems of acceleration.

All around the world, astronauts, cosmonauts, and air force pilots continue to wear G-Suits inspired by Dr. Franks’ designs.

The photo featured in the carousel of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s website, which shows Dr. Franks and his suit, was obtained from the University of Toronto’s archives.

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