ARLINGTON, Va. — As the Black Hawk skimmed the desert floor over northern Iraq in July, the heat rising to meet the gunner was almost unbearable.

Swathed in his fire-resistant jump suit, body armor, leather boots and helmet, the aviator sweltered through the three-hour flight.

“It’s like sitting in front of the world’s largest blow drier,” the gunner, assigned to the 101st Airborne Division told a Stripes reporter along for the ride.

Another Iraq summer is just months away — but so is relief for some lucky Army helicopter crews, thanks to the Air Warrior Microclimate Cooling System — a personal cooling device connected to a vest embedded with tiny plastic tubes filled with a chilled liquid — mostly water, mixed with a very small amount of propylene glycol, a less toxic version of the antifreeze used in cars.

The aviation system has been in development since 2000, using microclimate cooling researched at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass.

And now that U.S. troops have experienced firsthand a complete, brutal summer in Iraq, and with the second major rotation of troops into that country about to begin, officials at the Air Warrior Program Office at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., have torn up their retrofit schedule.

The new priority for the cooling system are helicopter crews deployed in the Middle East, according to Paul Bippen, Air Warrior’s deputy project manager.

Air Warrior officials recognized the need to reprioritize as temperatures began to rise in Iraq this spring, Bippen said.

Recently engineers have been able to design models that are not only affordable, but can quickly and easily be installed in helicopters.

The helicopter units are the first microclimate coolers to make it to full production, but Army engineers still intend to get the cooling units small enough so that they are practical to carry on foot.

Engineers designed the units with temperatures of 125 degrees and 14 percent relative humidity in mind.

“In other words, the desert,” said lead engineer Rich Luechtefeld, who joined the telephone interview with Bippen.

The cooling systems come in three parts: Each crewmember needs a 13-pound, shoe-box-sized device that works like a refrigerator and is anchored to the aircraft, a washable, 100 percent cotton vest embedded with tiny PVC tubes and a connecting “umbilical cord.”

The vest “cools your torso very effectively,” according to Luechtefeld, who has personally tested the system. “Testers’ comments have been really favorable.”

Air Warrior officials have decided that the first helicopters to get the coolers will be OH-58D Kiowa Warriors, he said.

He added which Kiowa units will be the first recipients is still being sorted out.

Army plans call for every Kiowa, UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook to be retrofitted with a personal cooler for each crewmember by 2010 — about 9,600 helicopters, Luechtefeld said.

Each personal cooling system costs about $7,000 — a per-unit cost that would drop if other military aircraft or vehicles were to adopt the coolers.

That process is starting.

The coolers caught the attention of the Army’s Tank Command in Warren, Mich., where officials have decided to purchase 200 cooling systems for installation aboard the M9A combat bulldozer, Luechtefeld said.

The coolers could even be installed aboard Humvees, which are nearly impossible to air condition unless they are the “up-armored” type, said Brad Laprise, a mechanical engineer with Natick’s Individual Protection Directorate.

“Frankly, I’m surprised no one has asked” researchers to test the Humvee as a cooling platform, Laprise said.

The first cooling systems were designed to be worn by aircrews wearing not only their uniforms, full body armor, survival vests, load-bearing equipment and helmets, but also their nuclear-biological-chemical suits, according to Luechtefeld.

Cooling technologies for individuals go back to 1989. The intent was to develop something for foot soldiers; the first prototype was the size of a vacuum cleaner and weighed 27 pounds.

The most recent man-portable version is brick-sized and weighs less than 5 pounds.

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