In the profession of aviation, hypoxia is a very real hazard. That is the reason why each and every Air Force flight crew member of the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (JBPHH) undergo thorough hypoxia training.
Hypoxia occurs when there is a lack of oxygen in the blood- typically due to high altitudes. A few of the symptoms include mental confusion, shortness of breath, and an increased rate of respiration and heart rate which can lead to unconsciousness. Lack of oxygen in the blood can result in severe brain injuries, or even death. A flight could turn into a detrimental situation if a pilot or crew were to face hypoxia unprepared.
Captain Timothy Plant, who oversees aerospace and operational physiology, says all crews get to experience hypoxia in a controlled environment to better prepare them for potential hypoxic flight situations. The tool used to create the environment is called a Reduced Oxygen Breathing device, or ROBD for short.
The ROBD puts the training airmen and airwomen into a hypoxic state by changing the percentage of oxygen and nitrogen in the airflow. According to Staff Sgt. Xenia Dillon, this is done without changing atmospheric pressure. While using the ROBD, trainees are also put in a flight simulator to see how they react and handle a hypoxic situation.
“The training objectives are specifically recognition of hypoxia signs and symptoms,” Plant states. “The only way you can effectively accomplish that is by getting people hypoxic. Putting them into a controlled hypoxic environment and let them experience how their body responds to the environment. Once they recognize their signs and symptoms we want to see them demonstrate proper corrective procedure.”
Prior to using the ROBD, servicemembers from the JBPHH would be dispatched to other bases to use a hypobaric chamber to complete training. Staff Sgt. Dillon noted an issue with those chambers, “Hypobaric chambers essentially change the atmospheric pressure grounding air crews because of the risk of decompression sickness, with the ROBD you can step straight from the training to the jet.” Not only does the ROBD provide a more efficient way of training, it has also saved the military TDY costs.
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Source: Air Force Medical Service