WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- The Air Force Research Laboratory has a rich and complex heritage, celebrating 100 years of U.S. Air Force science and technology this year. At less than 10 years old, the Lab’s 711th Human Performance Wing is young -- but its mission is anything but.
Today’s Wing comprises the Airman Systems Directorate, the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, and the Human Systems Integration Directorate. However, the earliest days of what is now the 711th go back to 1918, when the U.S. Army Air Service formed the Medical Research Laboratory at Hazelhurst Field on Long Island, New York.
Original work at that laboratory included experiments with low pressure chambers and the development of psychological profile tests. Over the next few years, the lab merged with the School for Flight Surgeons and became the School of Aviation Medicine, at which point the focus became training flight surgeons. Any experimentation was limited to ways to improve that training. The School moved to San Antonio, Texas, in 1926 to join what would eventually become the 311th Human Systems Wing (then the Aerospace Medical Division). New names continued through the decades until it eventually became the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, and the scope of the School’s mission expanded.
Meanwhile, another laboratory, the Physiological Research Unit, was established in 1935 at Wright Field, Ohio, to study the harsh environment that military aviators sometimes faced. Almost immediately, the laboratory’s research made significant progress toward the construction of practical pressurized cabins. The Physiological Research Unit also underwent name changes and mission expansion over the years-- even acquiring a few divisions in Texas -- until it became one of the Air Force’s “super labs,” the Harry G. Armstrong Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory, in 1990. Seven years later, it became the Human Effectiveness Directorate, a technical directorate under the newly formed Air Force Research Laboratory.
Through all the name changes and organizational restructuring, revolutionary research continued at both the School and the Laboratory, as well as at a unit in the Aerospace Medical Division that would eventually become the 311th Performance Enhancement Directorate. In the 1930s, for example, accomplishments included some things that are taken for granted today, such as the design of a small first aid kit for aircraft. Other research thrusts of the ’30s and ’40s included decompression sickness, parachutes and ejection seats, bone conduction of aircraft sound and vibration during flight, vision standards for aircrew and the development of flying goggles, and anthropological sizing of personal equipment, clothing and workstations, which led to the first anthropomorphic database on aircrews in 1942.
New research in the 1950s and 1960s saw the establishment of the first toxicology standards, efforts to establish human tolerance limits and standards for bioacoustics environments in the Air Force, and the development of body armor for aircrews of low and slow flying aircraft. The training mission continued as well. During the Vietnam War, the School’s training load grew along with the number of medical specialists in the Air Force, and research was done to develop courses addressing tropical diseases and aeromedical evacuation.
The ’50s and ’60s also saw heavy involvement with the newly developed space program. The School initially conducted medical tests on astronauts both before and after their missions. That work faded as NASA developed its own medical research facilities, but the Laboratory still played a critical role in ground-breaking acceleration research. The study of gravitational forces and their effects on the human body would continue for decades. One of the first true feats, though, came in 1958 when four men used the Lab’s centrifuge to “pull” 16.5 Gs -- an Air Force record to this day. (For comparison, the limit in 1997 was 9 Gs.)
The mission of the 711 HPW’s precursors would expand in another very significant way in the 1970s when the Aerospace Medical Division acquired a radiological laboratory at Wright-Patterson and assumed occupational and environmental health oversight for the entire Air Force. Through that decade and into the ’80s, key accomplishments across the units included the development of fully automated cockpit technology, progress in the area of secure tactical communications, computer modeling of workspace design, and creation of survivability/vulnerability models for weapons systems. The 1990s saw a renewed surge in support of chemical protective equipment -- work that had started 30 years prior -- and the development of panoramic night vision goggles, which built on research conducted over more than 50 years.
It was clear that the Aerospace Medical Division (now the 311th Human Systems Wing) had gone well beyond aeromedical research. The School and the 311th Performance Enhancement Directorate, along with AFRL’s Human Effectiveness Directorate, together served as the Air Force agents for human-centered research, development, acquisition and operational support. The ever-expanding, continually refined, and often similar missions and research areas of the three organizations meant there was a great deal of synergy to be gained by combining them, and a decision was made in 2005 to do just that.
Three years later, on March 25, 2008, officials at the Air Force Research Laboratory officially activated the 711th Human Performance Wing at Wright-Patterson. Almost all elements from Texas moved to Ohio over the next several years. The 311th Performance Enhancement Directorate was renamed the Human Systems Integration Directorate, the Human Effectiveness Directorate eventually became the Airman Systems Directorate, and United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine absorbed the Air Force Institute for Operational Health.
As the new 711 HPW, the three organizations work toward a combined vision to be a world leader for human performance. Though refined over nearly a century, the core of the original mission continues today -- advancing human performance in air, space, and cyberspace through research, education, and consultation. The Wing continues to provide the Air Force with science and technology, aerospace medicine, and human systems solutions and expertise in order to maximize Airman availability, enhance human performance, and optimize resource efficiency.