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HYPOXIA 'DOCS' - Physiology training combats human factors of flying

“Pilots are basically normal people in a very abnormal dynamic environment” (Photo by Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen)

“Pilots are basically normal people in a very abnormal dynamic environment” (Photo by Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen)

SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas (AETCNS) -- One of the secrets behind nearly 75 years of U.S. air dominance is the quality of its pilot training. But long before students learn to identify, out-maneuver and defeat enemy aircraft, they have to learn to deal with a much more subtle but no less dangerous threat: hypoxia.

Essentially a lack of oxygen in the brain and blood, hypoxia first became a factor in military aviation during World War I as better aircraft enabled pilots to reach higher altitudes where there is less oxygen -- an environment the human body is not designed for.

"Pilots are basically normal people in a very abnormal, dynamic environment," said Capt. Matthew Ramage, who is assigned to the 82nd Aerospace Medicine Squadron at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. "Our job in flight medicine is to make sure pilots are both physically fit and mentally prepared to deal with the unique stressors placed on their bodies in an aerospace environment."

Once pilot trainees meet the rigorous battery of medical testing prior to starting undergraduate pilot training, they begin physiological training, where they learn about cabin pressurization and oxygen systems. In all, students get 50 hours of physiological instruction in their first year of pilot training.

The training includes classroom time as well as hands-on time with equipment. But the heart of the program is the altitude chamber, where students get a personal experience with oxygen deprivation as well as a chance to observe how it affects their peers.

Given the high-performance qualities of modern aircraft, pilots may have only seconds to take corrective actions once the signs of hypoxia are evident, Ramage said. Complicating this is the fact that often, hypoxia initially creates a sense of euphoria, he added.

That's why hypoxia training requires pilots to complete specific actions under reduced oxygen conditions, including locating and activating oxygen equipment, turning on the regulator, checking connections, ensuring the safety of fellow aircrew members, descending below 10,000 feet and landing safely.

At Sheppard, everyone entering undergraduate flight training is required to visit the 82nd AMDS.

For Maj. Eydin Hansen, the 82nd AMDS aerospace and operational physiology flight commander, ensuring Airmen are trained to maximize human performance and combat human factors that can derail them and their aircraft in flight is the bottom line.

"Completing a flight physical, altitude chamber and centrifuge training, not to mention all the academic hours needed for high performance flight, is just the first step," Hansen said. "The next step is operating safely in a dynamic flight environment, let alone under duress. In our business you may only get one chance to get it right, so their decisions have to be accurate and second nature."