Aircrews offered a sigh of relief from Altitude Chamber Training

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Russ Jackson
  • 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Capt. Jeff Huiatt, 97th Airlift Squadron pilot, banks his C-17 Globemaster III at 25,000 feet over the mountains of Washington. Everything appears normal for this routine flight. Suddenly, he begins to feel a tingling sensation in his hands and his chest becomes heavy making it difficult to breathe, he feels he may pass out. Huiatt realizes he is beginning to suffer from hypoxia and flips a switch on the aircraft's control panel pumping 100% pure oxygen into his flight mask.

Fortunately for Huiatt, this was a training exercise held at the McChord Field Medical Clinic on a simulator called the Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device. The simulator allows pilots to experience the effects of hypoxia first-hand. The dangers of hypoxia are real in the profession of aviation, and knowing the signs before it is too late can save military assets and more importantly, lives.

Capt. Julianne Gillespie, 62nd Airlift Wing aerospace and operational physiologist, runs the refresher testing at McChord Field. The testing is mandatory for all aircrew members in order to learn their own body's warning signs for hypoxia during flight.

Gillespie teaches that hypoxia is a condition in which tissues are starved for oxygen. It decreases the brain's ability to perform cognitively and can lead to loss of consciousness.

"If a pilot begins to experience hypoxia, they must immediately don their oxygen mask or drop their aircraft below 10,000 feet," said Gillespie. "Failure to do so can lead to black outs and there will be no way to recover."

The ROBD allows aircrew members to experience hypoxia while flying. The simulator can mirror almost every aircraft in the Air Force fleet, allowing pilots to focus on a task they normally would while flying. The pilot is never aware when they are off oxygen.

"The ROBD tries to make the simulation as realistic as possible before 'sending' the aircrew member to 25,000 feet," Gillespie stated. "At that point the pilot will start to receive only about seven percent oxygen, normal being 21 percent, in their masks and must identify their need for oxygen as they start to experience hypoxia.

"This simulation forces the aircrew member to identify the effects on their own while doing the normal tasks they would while in the air."

The ROBD is financially practical, costing the Air Force between $40,000 and $60,000 annually as opposed to the almost $2 million it costs for the hypobaric chamber, commonly referred to as the altitude chamber.

Not every base is equipped with a ROBD and since McChord Field is, it is saving more than $150,000 annually by no longer sending aircrew members temporary duty to Fairchild Air Force Base's altitude chamber for the refresher training.

Aircrew members will still have to experience the altitude chamber during their technical school training, but after that they should be able to use the ROBD for the remainder of their careers.

This was welcoming news for Staff Sgt. Kurtis Strasser, 8th Airlift Squadron load master, who laughed and said "'I love the altitude chamber,' said no one ever!"

For more information on the ROBD, contact Gillespie at 982-1031.