Aircrews offered a sigh of relief from altitude chamber training

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Russ Jackson
  • 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
The 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. Capt. Jeff Huiatt realizes he is beginning to suffer from hypoxia and flips a switch on the aircraft's control panel pumping 100 percent pure oxygen into his flight mask.

Fortunately for Huiatt, an 97th Airlift Squadron pilot, this was a training exercise held using a Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device. The simulation allows pilots to experience the effects of hypoxia firsthand.

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, a 62nd Airlift Wing aerospace and operational physiologist, runs the refresher testing at the McChord Field Medical Clinic. 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 depriving tissues of oxygen. The lack of oxygen 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," Gillespie said. "Failure to do so can lead to black outs and there will be no way to recover."

The ROBD allows aircrews to experience hypoxia without leaving the ground. The simulator can mirror almost every aircraft in the Air Force fleet, allowing pilots to focus on a task they normally would while flying. Meanwhile, the pilots are 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 said. "At that point the pilot will start to receive only about 7 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." 

Saving the Air Force funds, the RODB costs between $40,000 and $60,000 annually as opposed to the roughly $2 million it costs for the hypobaric chamber, commonly referred to as the altitude chamber.

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.