Fit to fight: one fighter wing at a time

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Tristan Biese
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

As aviators know, proper maintenance of aircraft is key to providing combat capabilities. Just as aircraft need to be maintained and ready to fly, optimizing the human weapon system is also critical. Pilots themselves must also be healthy and ready to fight tonight.

To ensure pilots are ready at a moment’s notice, the 1st Fighter Wing has embedded Capt. Michelle Jilek, a physical therapist with the 633rd Medical Operations Squadron, to help increase mission effectiveness.

“Ninety-six percent of the pilots at Langley were flying in pain without treatment because they didn't have the availability to go to a clinic,” Jilek said. “That’s why I’m here.”

While she still performs her duties as a physical therapist each Monday through Thursday as part of the 633rd MDOS, Jilek spends her time after hours and all day Fridays at the 1st FW, providing treatment to pilots.

Due to flight schedules and the hospital’s hours of operation, it is difficult for pilots to get the care they need for some of their injuries.

“Embedded care is kind of where the military is going,” Jilek said. “The Army has done a lot more than the Air Force and the Navy; ... getting units to have their own medical team makes more sense.”

According to Jilek, through flight and certain maneuvers, pilots encounter gravitational forces, known as G-forces or Gs. For each G, the amount of weight is multiplied onto the pilot, which includes their own weight and the weight of their gear. The F-22 Raptor can easily pull nine Gs. While the T-38 Talon can reach up to 7 Gs, they usually stay around 5 to 5 1/2.

“It only takes about 40 to 45 seconds to compress your spine by a couple of millimeters when you're under those high forces,” Jilek said. “The more and more flights that you do, the more and more it's going to be affecting the spine.”

Not only is Jelik treating the pilots’ injuries, she also trains them in preventative measures. She teaches the pilots about different neck, spine and other exercises to strengthen the parts of the body that are prone to injury during flight.

“By being here, I've gotten pilots removed from the DNIF (duties not including flying list) just from visiting me a couple times and I've fixed people's issues that they've had for years in one treatment,” Jilek said. “Almost all the injuries here are spine-related, either in the lower back or the upper back, because of G-forces.”

The physical therapy program doesn’t just benefit the pilot, but the 1st FW’s mission as a whole, by making pilots fit to fight, thus optimizing the human weapons system.

“(Injuries) affect the flying schedule and pilot availability to the point where if it happens over and over, it can be a long-term problem,” said Lt. Col. Cheryl Buehn, 71st Fighter Squadron director of operations. “You need your body at its 100% to do the job. If you're broken, then that sortie doesn't go.”

For now, Jilek just focuses on pilots and their injuries. Down the road, she would like to be able to help all personnel in the wing.

According to Jilek, the 1st FW is one of few fighter wings across the Air Force that has an embedded physical therapist. For Jilek, embedded medical personnel is the way of the future and she, along with many of the 1st FW pilots, would like to see this program adopted across the Air Force.

“For me it’s a lot of back, neck and shoulder issues, but she’s been a huge help and I hope this program catches on,” Buehn said. “I hope this program ignites not just the treatment, but the preventative side of physical therapy and taking care of our bodies.”

The 1st Fighter Wing is responsible for one-third of the Air Force's combat F-22 Raptors, leading the way in combat capability and lethality in current operations worldwide. One physical therapist not only makes a difference in pilots’ health but the mission capabilities of an entire fighter wing, aiding in their ability to serve as America's premier air dominance wing.