From celebrating its 25th anniversary in business, the story of Tiger Performance as a safety and communications products supplier for the aviation and marine industries differs from your typical origin story.
Founded in 1999, Tiger Performance was founded by Sonny and Tina Hawkins to fill a market need they had identified while competing in the dangerous sport of Offshore powerboat racing. During an 18-year successful powerboat racing career, Sonny identified several critical areas where safety improvements needed to be addressed as the World and USA governing bodies started to address safety concerns after several fatal accidents on the racing circuits.
Not finding a suitable helmet in the marine world that would address multiple needs such as head protection, communications, and the ability to attach rescue breathing equipment in the event of a crash, Sonny looked towards the aviation industry to see if any options would suit the racing community. It was at that point Tiger Performance was founded.
Quickly, after identifying a helmet that would suit the needs of the powerboat racing industry, Sonny struck a worldwide dealer agreement with a company at the time called CGF, the French helmet manufacturer offering the LH050 and LH250 helicopter helmets and the LA100 Jet Pilot helmet. Sonny began marketing to the Worldwide powerboat racing community for all racing categories, bringing an aviation helmet designed for pilots into the marine environment for the first time. The CGF compact and lightweight helmets provided for the ready-made attachment of an oxygen mask, superior sound attenuation, and communication ability in addition to dual visor functionality that was needed during variable conditions, providing not only a step up in functionality but a step up in safety with the availability of these helmets.
As word spread of the new helmet available to the powerboat racing community, the popularity of the helmet grew quickly, becoming the most sought-after and most well-used helmet within the industry in a short period.
Sonny developed a patented underwater breathing variant of the USAF MBU20P pilot oxygen mask that automatically activates the compressed air flow during a rollover or submersion in a powerboat. These masks make racing in all forms of fully enclosed cockpits much safer and have saved many lives over the past 25 years. These masks are connected to onboard and miniature man-mounted compressed air bottles that buy racers valuable time for rescue to arrive to extract an injured racer while trapped underwater.
Tiger also expanded its marine onboard communications expertise into the marine patrol boat market for onboard plug-in and wireless radio intercom systems. It is used worldwide for various Military, law enforcement, and commercial applications.
Tiger Performance Enters the Aviation Market
Shortly after the start of the company, Sonny decided to sell CGF helmets, Tiger Performance advanced communications, and bailout emergency breathing systems to the aviation industry after many inquiries from interested pilots and crew members.
During the early years of representing CGF helmets, the company rebranded to CGF Gallet. The inventor of the CGF Gallet helmet, Adrian Gallet, passed away shortly after. His wife then sold the company to U.S.-based safety equipment supplier MSA, rebranding to the MSA Gallet helmet. In the last several years, the company dropped the Gallet branding, with the helmet now being solely branded as an MSA product. The MSA helmets are widely recognized for being the lightest weight, high quality, and comfortable, with many features and accessories. Many accessories have been developed exclusively by Tiger Performance. These include two Maxillofacial shields (optical see-through offered in 4 colors and lightweight carbon fiber), NVG quick-release mount, fid lock magnetic, and heavy-duty ratcheting chin strap choices.
Tiger also offers the very popular ICARO and Petzyl EMS-SAR helmets with attached headsets. These helmets are very comfortable and lightweight, with easy attachment of various custom Tiger, Bose, and Lightspeed headset choices. These helmets have rapidly grown in popularity for ag/spray applicator pilots, search and rescue, air medical rescue, and law enforcement.
Tiger’s man-mounted miniature and lightweight carbon fiber 4500 PSI Survival Breathing Apparatus is an industry-leading emergency bailout breathing system and the first choice for many aircrew members worldwide.
Challenging the Status Quo
Tiger Performance was the first company to delve into improving the audio quality of the existing helmet by integrating the extremely popular Bose A20 headset into the MSA and other helmets.
“We reconfigured a Bose A20 headset to fit inside flight helmets. Over ten years ago, we were the first ones, the originators of the Bose A20 conversion. It was extremely notable because it took off like wildfire. Suddenly, people wearing a helmet would benefit from what that headset could do with high-quality audio fit into a helmet for the first time. The pilot and aircrew can benefit from high-quality active noise reduction with onboard voice-activated communications, listening to music, radio, or phone calls while flying. There was nothing like all those high-end qualities at their disposal ten years ago. So that opened up a whole new world for pilots wearing helmets when only pilots wearing headsets had that ability previously,” said Hawkins.
The Department of the Interior oversees helmet standards for the U.S. State Department of Interior. The U.S. Forest Service demands a high safety standard for helmet safety for use in department aircraft and by contractors operating aircraft for those agencies. Hawkins stated that they had put many years and tens of thousands of dollars into testing their helmets to certified standards and adjusting the helmet, including creating custom molded ear cups for high noise attenuation and side impact. These ear cups are the foundation for Tiger’s in-house high-quality PNR and ANR helmet communications with or without Bluetooth. Tiger also created the addition of a helmet pigtail connector, which quickly disconnects a plug-in straight or coiled cable for PNR, PNR/Bluetooth, ANR or ANR/Bluetooth with U174 helicopter plug, dual G.A. or LEMO plug. These plug-in cable choices enable meeting any helmet communication requirements. Tiger’s Bose and Lightspeed helmet communications also qualify to meet the DOI/USFS standard.
While the company plans to continue to offer the Bose A20 modification for helmets, with the recent introduction of the Bose A30 headset, the A20 has been discontinued. Once again, Tiger Performance was the industry leader and the first to create the Bose A30 helmet conversion. The Bose A30 has even more advanced features and performance than the A20.
Another critical function for helmets, communication ability, and safety is comfort. Tiger Performance also allows selecting between leatherette/memory foam, gel, or vinyl foam for ear cup seals and choices of comfort foam or memory foam helmet liners.
As a key innovator in new technology, Tiger Performance is dedicated to pushing the envelope regarding technology, safety enhancements, and improvements to helmet-based products. One of those innovations currently in development is the ability to operate wirelessly in the cockpit or on the ground during search and rescue, medical transport, Military, law enforcement, and other ground operations through wireless hands-free communications. This fully integrated wireless flight helmet communications is another industry first for flight helmets.
Hawkins detailed that the soon-to-be-released product is currently undergoing field testing with the ability for the wearer to adjust microphone squelch directly from a dial knob on the helmet, which allows the user to adjust the amount of squelch in a windy environment when the wearer is in the open door of a helicopter or moves outside the cockpit in a search and rescue mission. The wireless communications are available in passive or active noise reduction configurations with helmet installed Bluetooth and radio PTT controls and can communicate with 20 or more wireless helmets or headsets. An aircraft plug-in transceiver enables aircraft intercom and radio connectivity with the wireless helmets or headsets. Tiger offers a complete line of wireless helmets, EMS-SAR helmet-mounted headsets, and headband and neckband headsets.
When questioned about the ability of the new technology to work outside the cockpit, Hawkins explains that the wireless modification will allow the user to communicate within 1000 feet of the aircraft wirelessly as long as there is a line of sight between the user and the aircraft, potentially eliminating the need for expensive external wireless communication solutions in some circumstances.
The wireless helmet is rechargeable and battery-operated and can go from wireless to wired communication in case of a battery failure or if the battery is left uncharged with an included plug-in communication cord accessory. At the same time, Hawkins estimates that with a full charge, the wireless solution will easily last an entire day of heavy usage.
Improving on Quality
In addition to the wireless solution, Tiger Performance has teamed up with a world-leading Communication component manufacturer to develop what Sonny describes as the “World’s Best” microphone. The VIPER microphone series is designed for use in all forms of aviation and marine Military and commercial helmet and headset communications. Offered in either plug-in or flex boom integrated, the new microphone is reported to have superior wind performance and speech intelligibility. It is reasonably priced, according to Hawkins, who states in testing with the U.S. military and during company testing, it has outperformed all competition and exceeded expectations on many levels with documented performance. The Viper microphones are available in civilian high-impedance amplified electret or military low-impedance dynamic configurations for plug-in full pivot, Gentex style flex with flag mount, flex/wire, or full wire booms for any helmet or headset. Orders are now being accepted, with deliveries beginning in November. TSO and Mil-Spec certifications are pending.
Further Viper Microphone Progress
Also in development by Tiger Performance is a fully submersible Wet SAR version of the MSA helmet for search and rescue operations for rescue crew members that need to be dispatched outside of the aircraft into a water environment. The new waterproof/corrosion-proof helmet currently in development will be IP68, waterproof to four meters (13 feet), and is designed to be not only waterproof but have fully enclosed circuitry to beat the corrosive nature of salt water and what it can do to exposed electronic and metal components of a helmet.
Also in development are oxygen mask versions of the Viper microphone for USAF and U.S. Navy configurations.
The latest product on display at the NAAA convention held in December in Palm Springs will address the extreme effects of Global Warming and particularly interest pilots that spend extended time in aircraft wearing a helmet. Hawkins noted over several years that pilots complained that despite having air conditioning in aircraft, they still sweat inside their helmets. Hawkins stated that his team has been hard at work developing a helmet-integrated powered ventilation/cooling system that will be reasonably priced, easy to install, and introduce airflow into the previously sealed helmet environment to address one of the most complex problems of heat not dissipating from a helmet.
The Tiger helmet integrated ventilation/cooling modification can be added to most aviation flight helmets and is easily removable when not in use during cooler seasons.
A Family Affair
Although started by Sonny and his wife Tina, Sonny knows he won’t be around forever. He has looked to his family to continue the legacy he created. Son Oleksandr “Sasha” Hawkins, the Hawkins son, is the company marketing and advertising manager, is involved in production, and has worked for the company for the past 8 years. The company’s General manager and nephew, Bobby Dubill, who first worked for Sonny as a crew chief on his boat racing team, has been with the company since its founding. Sonny’s sales manager and second nephew, Joey Dubill, has also been with the company since two years after the company’s founding.
As an innovator in the industry, Tiger Performance has several new products soon to hit the market that may make flying a little more comfortable and give pilots more freedom of movement and a much-improved audio experience, depending on their helmet selection and modifications. One thing is sure: Tiger Performance listens to their customers’ feedback and requests and is not waiting on the next big thing but looking to what pilots want and inventing new products to continue pushing the industry forward, making flying safer and more comfortable, and providing more effective communications.