Operational physiology training preps Airmen for flight

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Joe Yanik
  • Air Force District of Washington

(This story is the second of 10 stories about the more than 1,500 Air Force health care professionals who make up the 11th Medical Group and the vast expertise they bring to executing the organization's mission of providing medical services for expeditionary deployment and defense operations in the National Capital Region and around the world.)

Sitting beside 13 of her fellow students inside a high-altitude flight simulation chamber, Maj. Suzanne Nielson, 709th Airlift Wing pilot, recounted the time when she wasn’t feeling like herself during a 2009 mission to a research center in Antarctica.


Her team’s mission was to transport 10,000 pounds of cargo from a camp based at a location that was 15,000 feet above sea level. Outside their parked LC-130 Hercules, the co-pilot and her Airmen worked on their feet, loading cargo pallets and preparing the ski-fitted turboprop transport aircraft for take-off.


“After about 30 minutes, I began breathing heavily and noticed a tingling feeling in my feet,” Nielson said. “My flight commander noticed my lips turning blue, and he had me put on an oxygen mask.”


Soon after taking in more oxygen, she said she began to feel better.


Nielson was exhibiting symptoms of hypoxia, a condition of oxygen deficiency to the body that many fliers and aircrew experience in environments with varying levels of air pressure.


To learn how to identify these symptoms in themselves and in others, approximately 1,200 civilian and military fliers, like Nielson, undergo altitude simulation training every year at the 11th Medical Group's facility at Joint Base Andrews, Md.


“All military members who fly as part of their duties are required to undergo altitude refresher training once every five years,” said Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Grant, Aerospace & Operational Physiology Training Flight. “The reason for the recurring training is because the students’ physiological reactions to different altitudes can vary over time, depending on changes to their bodies or lifestyles.”


Other impairments that students may experience in environments of oxygen deficiency are a loss of useful consciousness, blurred vision and developing a care-free aloofness, which can be compared to a state of euphoria or drunkenness. If unaddressed, these symptoms can become debilitating and can have dangerously adverse effects on operational readiness in flight.


Understanding how one’s physiology reacts to potential air pressure emergencies mid-flight is at the core of the altitude training Nielson and the other students underwent in the chamber. To gain this understanding, students remove their oxygen masks in the chamber and are subjected to an array of cognitive assessments at an altitude of 25,000 feet. These assessments include seemingly-simply activities such as solving basic math problems, writing on paper, distinguishing colors on a chart and recalling common knowledge information.


“It’s during these changes in air pressure that students begin to exhibit symptoms of hypoxia,” said Grant.


Airmen from the 11th MDG's AOPTF administer the altitude training and work closely together to ensure students react appropriately to their hypoxia symptoms under a controlled, safe environment.


For Nielson’s class of 14 students, there were two observers inside the chamber to respond immediately if any of the students exhibited severe symptoms.  During the process, a chamber operator manipulates air and vacuum valves to simulate ascent and descent; a chamber lecturer guides the students via headsets through each phase of the training; a crew chief manages pumps and sub-systems; a recorder monitors communications and the length of time students are off oxygen; and an aerospace physiology officer oversees the entire operation.


This being her fourth time in the chamber, Nielson said she benefits greatly from the training especially since she is now an aircraft commander herself.


“Not only did the training further solidify my understanding of my own symptoms, it helped me to learn what other people’s symptoms look like,” said Nielson. “This is important because, as an aircraft commander now, I have the added responsibility of taking care of my team, like my commander did for me.”


For Grant, the job of enhancing operational readiness for the Air Force’s fliers and aircrew members has its own rewards.


“This physiological training prepares our warfighters to perform their duties in flight and helps them to recognize when something is wrong physiologically and be able to correct for that,” said Grant. “Interacting with all the students coming though, getting their perspectives on the training and supporting the warfighters makes this job really great.”