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High-tech earplugs say 'Shh!' to jet engines

Fighter pilots get to handle some of the most advanced technology around, from weapons systems to the avionics equipment that helps keep them flying straight. But to guard against the deafening noise of their jet engines, they've long had to rely on little more than cheap, disposable foam earplugs.

They can start putting hearing loss on hold, however, with some gadgetry cooked up by the Air Force Research Laboratory. The new ACCES gear embeds specialized electronics and a voice communications cable into a pair of custom-molded earpieces that the research agency says "allows clear communications while simultaneously protecting the ear from damaging audio frequencies," to say nothing of the muffling effect of the foam plugs. That is, pilots and navigators can talk flight plans with less worry about missing a key instruction and less fretting about an early landing on the disability rolls.

The high-tech earplugs, which cost about $300 a set, could soon be available outside Air Force squadrons. Last September, Westone Laboratories won a government contract to sell the product to both military and commercial customers. That's sort of a round trip for Westone; the Air Force developed its earplug technology in conjunction with the hearing health care specialist, whose in-ear music monitoring devices are used by rocker Carlos Santana and other musicians.

ACCES reduces noise by at least 30 decibels, according to the Air Force lab. The system was recently approved for use in fighter aircraft, but it had an early workout in the landmark flight of the rocket plane SpaceShipOne in September 2004, the lab said.

The head of the Air Force Reserve is an enthusiastic convert to the technology, according to an Associated Press story that ran Thursday on MSNBC. "These things are phenomenal," Lt. Gen. John Bradley said after a December test flight, the AP reported. "It cuts out more noise, and I can hear much better. I want to buy this for every Reserve I have who wears a helmet."

(ACCES, for those keeping score on military acronyms, is short for Attenuating Custom Communications Earphone System.)