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Technical Sgt. Leslie Batten, 461st Operations Support Squadron Aerospace and Operational Physiology NCOIC, demonstrates the unit’s new state-of-the art hypoxia familiarization trainer. The squadron’s ability to train military aircrews who fly aboard the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System based at Robins, celebrated a milestone April 5 with the certification of the new equipment. (Image courtesy of U.S. Air Force/Tommie Horton)

Confusion, sweating, rapid breathing, nausea – symptoms that should be immediately addressed, not only when your body is on land but also in the air. And when you’re an aircrew member flying downrange or training for a few hours stateside, it’s imperative you’re aware of your body’s reaction to hypoxia.

Hypoxia: a deficiency of oxygen reaching tissues, blood and cells in the body.

Aerospace physiology technicians in the 461st Air Control Wing’s Aerospace and Operational Physiology unit work hand in hand to train men and women on the physiological hazards of flying in a high-altitude environment.

After all, the safety of all aircrew members is paramount, and a successful hypoxia training mission at Robins translates to a successful real-world mission accomplished anywhere in the world.

Their ability to train military air crews who fly aboard the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, based at Robins, celebrated a milestone April 5 with the certification of a new, state-of-the art hypoxia familiarization trainer. It offers a Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device that allows trainees to experience what it feels like to function at reduced oxygen levels while in flight.

“One of our primary duties is to train aircrew on the physiological hazards of flight, in particular hypoxia recognition,” said 1st Lt. Pierre Nelson with 461st OSS Aerospace and Operational Physiology. “We’re very excited to have this training equipment in the 461st ACW. While this can train JSTARS aircrew here, it can also serve as a regional trainer as well – a one-stop shop.”

According to Nelson, a major benefit to having the trainer at Robins is that associated temporary duty costs can be lessened, as well as days spent away from work. An estimated 200 JSTARS crew members receive annual refresher hypoxia awareness training, at an annual cost of about $120,000. Nearby locations include Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.

Training can be conducted much faster with the new hypoxia trainer – in about 10 to 15 minutes – versus using an altitude chamber for more than an hour. Initial classes will be conducted later this month.

Part of the trainer’s setup includes a station where an aircrew member sits with a mask on just behind a large screen while a mission flight is simulated. As this is in progress, Nelson is behind the controls of a nearby station, the ROBD, where he begins to dilute oxygen levels similar to what would be experienced at high altitudes.

As Nelson observes and listens, once a trainee experiences hypoxia symptoms, he pushes the oxygen dump button which immediately activates 100 percent oxygen through a mask. While that occurs, other mission crew members can train at another nearby station that simulates various games, some rather simple.

Remember the scene in “An Officer and a Gentleman” when David Keith’s character, Sid Worley, begins to lose it inside the hypobaric chamber? While other officer candidates are doing mundane tasks like playing a pat-a-cake clapping game, Worley gets up and is disoriented, only to be quietly calmed with an oxygen mask from Richard Gere’s character, Zack Mayo.

“This trainer causes the same low oxygen symptoms as seen in the movie, but they get to do more flight-related tasks here,” said Lt. Col. David Welge, visiting from Randolph Air Force Base to certify the new trainer. “Here you get the same training, and it’s more realistic with less risk to a pilot.”

While flying, there are various hypoxia symptoms that your body should be aware of, some of which may feel fine, but left unchecked can be hazardous to your health.

“When I got my initial training, I got nauseous and dizzy, which are good hypoxia symptoms to have because you immediately want to correct for that,” said Nelson.

Euphoria, feelings of great happiness and excitement, of well-being or elation, can be more on the dangerous side since you may not immediately want to correct that.

“Upon hypoxia set-in, an individual will initially experience symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, possibly dizziness, and if it goes on for too long … they’ll eventually pass out,” he added. “Particularly for a pilot, that will definitely put the aircrew in jeopardy.”

While there is initial hypoxia training via an altitude chamber, refresher hypoxia training using the ROBD now offered at Robins must occur every five years in order to be certified to fly.

Just behind the trainer, which is currently configured only for the E-8C, sit three tanks filled with gases such as nitrogen, oxygen and compressed air. Connected to the ROBD, when it’s activated, a mix of nitrogen and air simulate the high-altitude environment.

“Because someone is now in that low oxygen state, they’re going to feel those hypoxia symptoms. Our third tank (at 100 percent oxygen), will activate and get it back into your system very quickly in a matter of seconds,” said Nelson.

Everything is closely and safely monitored. A trainee wears a pulse oximeter, a device that monitors oxygen levels, allowing Nelson to detect levels that reach below 87 percent, which is hypoxia.

Everyone experiences different hypoxia symptoms and knowing yours is one direct benefit of the training. Hypoxia recovery following a training session happens immediately, with no risk of decompression sickness and faster recovery, with no restriction to an individual’s flight operations.

Demonstrating the trainer was Tech Sgt. Leslie Batten, Aerospace and Operational Physiology NCOIC.

“Usually when I do get hypoxic I start to feel a little dizzy, maybe see stars, slight visual disturbances, sometimes a little warm with mental confusion. That’s for me since everyone’s different,” she said.

Supplementary Information:

To watch a video of the hypoxia familiarization trainer, visit https://www.dvidshub.net/video/457870/new-physiology-trainer.

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