MAY 23, 2017, WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFNS) – Students with the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine students, routinely use an altitude hypobaric chamber at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which simulates a flight at 25,000 feet, as part of Initial Aerospace Physiological Training.
First Lt. Alex Medina, the U.S. Air Force Space, Missiles and Forces Intelligence Group executive officer, is one of those students. After 30 minutes of pre-breathing 100 percent oxygen he took his mask off and quickly felt the effect of lack of air due to the decrease in barometric pressure.
“The hypoxic effects began much quicker than I had anticipated and felt very similar to feeling overly intoxicated,” Medina said.
When there is a loss of cabin pressure, aircrew and passengers experience hypoxia—oxygen deprivation—which is the most dangerous aspect of flying at altitude, said Senior Master Sgt. Johal Mandeep, the USAFSAM Aerospace and Operational Physiology Division superintendent.
The purpose of the initial training is to help aircrew, and operational personnel flying in aircraft, understand the hazards of high altitude flight and the physiological effects of low barometric pressure.
“When we put students in the chamber they’re accompanied by two to three chamber technicians as safety observers. We are all trained to treat any issues that could occur during the flight,” Mandeep said.
As the barometric pressure drops, instructors give students a few puzzles, short answer questions and simple math problems to solve.
“I was able to do the first three tasks fairly quickly, but then quickly became very dizzy,” Medina said. “I tried to work through it, but the simple math problems were increasingly difficult, due to the onset of mental confusion.”
He tried to compensate.
“I skipped around on the page to accomplish other questions [and] puzzles that were easier to comprehend, but then felt very hot and decided to call it quits,” Medina said. “I don’t think I made it past 60 seconds.”
Every year USAFSAM trains approximately 1,300 students in the required two-day training, which includes academics and a chamber flight.
“I believe the most valuable experience about the training is to give our students basic information on the hazards of low barometric pressure in-flight, and to be able to physically experience the effects of hypoxia so they can identify it and treat if it occurs in-flight,” Mandeep said.
By Michelle Gigante, U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine