Aerospace physiology key to AF missions

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- From early ages, people have been fascinated with flight. Most watched Peter Pan as children and grew up with Top Gun, Star Trek and Star Wars. The Air Force offers qualified Airmen the ability to become pilots, pararescuers and other specialties within the flying career field through aerospace physiology.

"Air Force Aerospace Physiology is the study of the human response to the aviation environment.  Because humans weren't born with wings to fly like birds, these stressors of flight must be recognized and mitigated to ensure mission success," said Capt. Elliot Reed, branch chief of aircrew training, USAFSAM, 711 Human Performance Wing.

"Prior to becoming an aircrew member, all aviators must complete initial physiological academics and training in the altitude chamber," said Tech. Sgt. Erica Luke,  an aerospace physiologist in the, United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, 711 Human Performance Wing. "After they receive their initial training, the aircrew members must become recertified every five years."

High altitudes cause many different effects on the human body such as hypoxia, decompression sickness and disorientation, just to name a few. 

Luke explained that "Physiologists must understand atmospheric and environmental characteristics, the human physiological response to flight, and the function of aircraft life sustaining systems."  

After learning and experiencing the training firsthand, then the physiologists are responsible for educating and training aircrew members on the hazards of flight in order to receive flight certification.

"The Host Aviation Resource Management keeps track of the aircrew member's training," she said. "Then HARM keeps track of the member's physiology expiration date and contacts the individual to get recertified at the closest Aerospace and Operational Physiology Training unit."

According to Luke, crewmembers are referred to an AP unit for several reasons--one being motion sickness that can't be controlled during flight. For this, Luke explained that the crew member would be offered a three-day training in the Barany chair--a chair that spins and prepares crewmembers for spacial disorientation.

"While spinning, the member is taught breathing techniques, muscle control, and given nutrition and sleep guidance," she said. "The aircrew member may never be rid of their motion sickness, but a physiologist can provide them training to help minimize the feeling, allowing them to continue with their mission."

When asked if APs deploy, the answer is "Yes Virginia. APs deploy!"

Luke described the AP's duty down range as supporting aircrew members for interrupted sleep cycles, adjusting to shift work, nutrition, hot/cold environment stressors, etc. Their primary deployed role is to give guidance on improving work environments to keep them flying.

So, when it comes to the Air Force mission to "Aim high, Fly, Fight-Win," the aerospace physiologists play an essential role.