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G, Let Me Think - Proper fitness can help pilots avoid blackouts in cockpit

U.S. Air Force Maj. Benjamin Schill, 149th Fighter Wing F-16 pilot, works out at his unit, 14 July, 2014, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sarayuth Pinthong/ Not released)

Gravity-induced loss of consciousness, also know as G-LOC, is a pilot killer. It can be combated with exercise programs — including weight training, as emphasized in this photo illustration of a pilot military pressing an F-22 Raptor. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sarayuth Pinthong/ Not released)

An F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot conducts an unrestricted vertical climb from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, during Exercise Cope North, Feb. 15, 2010. The U.S. Air Force and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force conduct the exercise annually at Andersen to increase combat readiness and interoperability.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey)

G-LOC can happen when pilots are doing high-speed aerial maneuvers and aren’t properly prepared, both physically and mentally. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey)

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Stephen Frank, instructor pilot, 559 Flying Training Squadron, does slow control decline sit-ups, 16 July, 2014, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sarayuth Pinthong/ Released)

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Stephen Frank, instructor pilot, 559 Flying Training Squadron, does slow control decline sit-ups, 16 July, 2014, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sarayuth Pinthong/ Released)

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Stephen Frank, instructor pilot, 559 Flying Training Squadron, uses a Swiss ball with his crunches, 16 July, 2014, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sarayuth Pinthong/ Released)

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Stephen Frank, instructor pilot, 559 Flying Training Squadron, uses a Swiss ball with his crunches, 16 July, 2014, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sarayuth Pinthong/ Released)

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Stephen Frank, instructor pilot, 559 Flying Training Squadron, does squats followed by a military press, 16 July, 2014, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sarayuth Pinthong/ Released)

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Stephen Frank, instructor pilot, 559 Flying Training Squadron, does squats followed by a military press, 16 July, 2014, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sarayuth Pinthong/ Released)

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Stephen Frank, instructor pilot, 559 Flying Training Squadron, performs leg press to build up his quads and lower muscle groups, 16 July, 2014, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sarayuth Pinthong/ Released)

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Stephen Frank, instructor pilot, 559 Flying Training Squadron, performs leg press to build up his quads and lower muscle groups, 16 July, 2014, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sarayuth Pinthong/ Released)

LAUGHLIN AFB, Texas -- Legs tight, butt tight, abs tight ... breathe! Sounds like commands given in a high-paced workout class held on base; however these are the very same words strung together in three-second intervals at the centrifuge. The centrifuge is a device used in training our future fighter pilots to reduce the chances of losing consciousness from gravitational
forces, also commonly referred to as G-LOC.

Between 2006 and 2012, the Air Force lost three aircraft because of G-LOC and in each of those mishaps, a pilot lost his life.

To effectively combat the effects of G-forces, an individual must learn the correct anti-G straining maneuver, which consists of a proper breathing technique as well as aggressive muscle tensing. These two actors counter blood pressure loss during high-G maneuvering, preserving the pilot's conscious by supporting blood flow to the heart and brain. To safely and effectively go round for round with these high-G aircraft, pilots must prime their bodies to withstand forces up to nine times their bodyweight. To do that, fighter pilot exercise programs must stress the vital areas to successfully perform consecutive straining maneuvers.

The anti-G straining maneuver begins with tensing of the lower body, but more specifically, the calf muscles. Calves are often neglected by most gym-goers because they do not seem as important for daily life; however they can mean all the difference in staying conscious or blacking out. Using bodyweight calf raises might do the trick to finish off a good leg workout, but it will take much more to build a strong base for the straining maneuver. By pushing past your comfort level, safely and effectively adding weights to calf exercises will help bust through any plateau you might have been
at in a workout routine.

Next, your quads, hamstrings and gluteals need to be challenged with heavy squats, leg presses and deadlifts. Each one of these exercises has its benefits and targets different muscles in the leg; but because of their complex nature, they also can be dangerous if done incorrectly.

Finally, the abdominal muscles need to be targeted to maintain that strong, lower body strain. Many individuals know crunches and leg raises are effective for building beach-body abs; however, many do not realize the benefit of incorporating weighted exercises into routines. Weighted rope crunches, planks and sit-ups will build a nice, strong abdomen that will help counter G-suit inflation and maximize the high-G strain. These exercises will also develop strong core muscles which assist with cockpit stability.

One of my first projects as an aerospace and operational physiologist was to assist in increasing the G-tolerance of a student pilot who was selected to fly the prestigious F-22 Raptor. He had unsuccessfully attempted the 9G simulated air combat maneuver centrifuge profile that would qualify him to move on to his next phase of training. He was given one more opportunity to return and complete the profile without blacking out or he risked reclassification into another airframe.

The student pilot showed up to my office standing at 6-foot-2 and weighing less than 170 pounds soaking wet! We had our work cut out for us. The student seemed to have a very healthy cardiovascular system with blood pressure as low as 110/70. The lower than normal blood pressure coupled with less than average muscular tone could spell disaster for anyone attempting to pull Gs.

For five months, the young lieutenant followed his prescribed workout plan that focused on heavy lower body exercises in conjunction with a few upper body exercises for overall fitness. His diet plan also was tweaked to increase caloric intake to refuel his body after grueling workouts. Muscle is built outside of the gym, so sufficient nutrients and sleep were necessary to ensure that our plan would be successful.

Throughout this stressful time, the student had doubts of the effectiveness of this type of training and would often ask if he should be doing more. I informed him that I believed in exercises called "The Big 3." It consists of heavy bench presses, squats and dead lifts. If he could master these three exercises and consistently add weight to them week after week, then he would improve his ability to pull Gs. Simple, basic, compound movements have proven time and time again to be the king of increasing size and strength in an individual.

My final piece of advice for the student was to exercise his strongest muscle -- his heart. I clipped a picture of an F 22 and a pilot in the centrifuge and told him to have it with him for every workout, for inspiration and motivation. He carried that tattered and torn picture for the duration of his training. During his workouts I would amp him up, and soon realized that giving him the same support during his centrifuge practice spins yielded positive results as well. On Jan. 8, the student passed the centrifuge with flying colors and accomplished another milestone in his flying career.

Through hard work, repeated practice centrifuge spins, and a positive mental attitude, the student was able to complete the 9G profile with ease. He gained close to 20 pounds of muscle, corrected his bad workout habits, and turned himself into a G-monster!

This student illustrated two important concepts for every student pilot. First, during pilot training, it's important to master the anti-G straining maneuver early in flying training. Some students tend to develop poor straining maneuver technique in the T-6, and then struggle to overcome those poor habit patterns when they move on to high performance aircraft like the F-22. Secondly, students should begin a comprehensive exercise plan (that targets G-performance) early in flying training. There is strong evidence
that such an exercise plan will improve a student's ability to handle Gs, and will pay dividends not only at the centrifuge, but in the aircraft as well.