Aerospace, operational physiology: Perfecting the imperfect science of the body

Staff Sgt. Lorenzo Medina, 27th Special Operations Support Squadron operational and aerospace physiology NCO in charge, gives direction as Maj. Francisco Medina, 27th SOSS operational and aerospace physiology chief, undergoes altitude training using the reduced oxygen breathing device Dec. 9, 2015, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. One of many facets performed by Air Force aerospace physiologists, the reduced oxygen breathing device is used to familiarize pilots and aircrew with the effects and symptoms of hypoxia. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Whitney Amstutz)

Staff Sgt. Lorenzo Medina, 27th Special Operations Support Squadron operational and aerospace physiology NCO in charge, gives direction as Maj. Francisco Medina, 27th SOSS operational and aerospace physiology chief, undergoes altitude training using the reduced oxygen breathing device Dec. 9, 2015, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. One of many facets performed by Air Force aerospace physiologists, the reduced oxygen breathing device is used to familiarize pilots and aircrew with the effects and symptoms of hypoxia. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Whitney Amstutz)

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- According to airforce.com, aerospace and operational technicians are entrusted with the responsibility of preparing Air Force pilots, aircrews, and parachutists for the physiological demands placed on their bodies during flight. Air Commandos assigned to the 27th Special Operations Support Squadron aerospace physiology team work tirelessly to ensure this imperfect science is as close to perfect as it gets.

Throughout the Air Force, aerospace and operational technicians perform a myriad of functions that are largely determined by their base and mission. From familiarizing aircrew with the effects of hypoxia in the altitude chamber to launching and recovering the U2 Dragon Lady, aerospace physiologists are expected to be modern day renaissance airmen.

At the 27th Special Operations Wing, Staff Sgt. Lorenzo Medina, 27th SOSS aerospace and operational physiology NCO in charge, works alongside Maj. Anthony Francisco, 27th SOSS aerospace and operational physiology chief, to provide comprehensive support to Cannon’s flying community.

“Here at Cannon, we primarily provide three-four functions,” Medina said. “We conduct altitude training; provide human factor expertise, night vision goggle instruction and aircrew rotational training which are also referred to as the aircrew sickness management program.”

In place of the altitude chamber, members at the 27th SOW become familiar with hypoxia and its symptoms through utilization of the reduced oxygen breathing device, technology which cuts costs as well as operational manpower requirements.

“When using the device, Airmen do not necessarily get to feel the change in the chamber, but they do experience the symptoms of hypoxia,” Medina said. “It is less expensive to operate and only requires a two-man team as opposed to the approximately eight personnel it requires to manage the altitude chamber.”

Because it is a simulation, the reduced oxygen breathing device allows pilots to perform the same tasks they would in a real world setting. Without warning, the pilot’s oxygen is restricted by instructors and it becomes their responsibility to self-diagnose and appropriately treat their hypoxic symptoms.

“We distract the pilot by telling them to go to a certain heading or fly to a certain altitude,” Medina said. “This is much more realistic than what they would be asked to do in the altitude chamber, which is typically solving math problems or completing a maze of some kind. Once they are engrossed in their task we restrict their oxygen intake and it becomes harder for them to complete tasks that normally come naturally. At this point, we are looking for them to recognize they are becoming hypoxic and take action to correct it.”

Because the field is so diverse, aerospace and operational physiologists and technicians may go their entire careers without performing some of its functions. A 10-year enlistee, Medina only became familiar with the use and application of night vision goggles upon arriving at Cannon last year.

“I am one of a handful of night vision goggle instructors here at Cannon,” Medina said. “This is the first time in my career I have been required to become proficient in this aspect of my occupation. In previous years I have worked to educate undergraduate pilots on basic flight physiology, taught dive science using the hyperbaric chamber, gotten jump certified for the High Altitude Airdrop Mission Support operation, and now I have added night vision goggles to my resume. Anytime aircrew members need refresher training, we fill that requirement.”

The last of the primary functions performed at Cannon, the aircrew sickness management program is of utmost value to airmen experiencing air sickness severe enough to ground them permanently.

Utilizing the Bárány chair, a device employed for both pilot training and motion sickness therapy, aerospace physiologists spin aircrew members at approximately 20 to 30 revolutions per minute for 10 minutes at a time in an effort to desensitize the inner ear.

“Whether new to the field or a seasoned flyer, aircrew members sometimes become susceptible to extreme bouts of air sickness,” Medina said. “Suddenly they become sick and lose the ability to perform their jobs. After all other treatment options have been exhausted; we perform something called a three-day initial.”
During the three-day initial, members are spun in the Bárány chair for 10 minutes, three times an hour, for a total of 30 minutes. As the title suggests the three-day initial lasts for three consecutive days and is intended to far exceed conditions Airmen would experience in the air.

“This treatment can be really hard on people,” Medina said. “When someone comes in with a desire to save their flying career and we are able to help them, that is one of the most rewarding aspects of what I do.”

Medina, a proud father of four, plans to take his passion for physiology to the officer tier and provide support to his fellow airmen at a higher echelon. Though the Texas native considered exploring other career fields as an officer, his love for the people and diversity within the aerospace physiology field ultimately beat out other contenders.

“I am graduating with my bachelors in February and will most likely dive into a master's course immediately after,” Medina said. “I know my job well, I love that it is a small career field that provides the opportunity to get to know your colleagues, and the diversity cannot be matched. This year I am teaching night vision goggle courses and putting members through altitude training; next year I could be launching and recovering the U2. I love not knowing.”