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The critical mission of Team McChord’s aerospace physiologist

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Alejandra Urbina, 62d Operation Support Squadron NCO in charge of aerospace physiology, teaches a class at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, June 18, 2024. Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Kylee Tyus

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD - In the world of Air Force aviation, aerospace physiologists play a crucial role in ensuring the health and safety of aircrew and passengers. With their expertise, these specialists train aircrews to handle everything from extreme gravitational forces to exposure to high altitudes. Along with preparing airmen to identify signs of various forms of air sickness, they explore the effects of fatigue, stress, and other limitations that the human body may experience while airborne.

From ensuring the safety and health of airmen in the sky, to arming them with information they need to ensure their own safety in the classroom, aerospace physiologists navigate the unique challenges of working at high altitudes to support today's global airlift mission and maintain the readiness of other airmen.

"In school we learn about human anatomy and a lot about the inner ear," said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Alejandra Urbina, 62d Operation Support Squadron NCO in charge of aerospace physiology. "Half is science and learning about physiology, and what happens to you; the other half is learning how to teach. We learn about physiology, anatomy, cabin pressurization, oxygen equipment and the different masks, helmets and emergency equipment."

While most Air Force bases have a team of aerospace physiologists, here at McChord, Urbina, the 2023 Air Mobility Command Aerospace Physiologist Instructor of the Year, is the sole aerospace physiologist assigned to the 62d Airlift Wing and is responsible for ensuring Team McChor airmen stay up to date with their training.

During the training, airmen are taught about hypoxia, a condition that occurs in the body when there is a lack of oxygen, and decompression sickness; an illness caused by reduced pressure on the body. Airmen learn to recognize the symptoms as well as go through a simulation to identify what hypoxia for their body will feel and look like.

 "At this base I teach refresher classes, so everybody's already been through their initial hypoxia training," said Urbina. "This involves a ground level chamber they'll go inside to simulate increasing altitudes. When you're in the chamber you're wearing an oxygen mask and breathing 100% oxygen for 30 minutes and when the 30 minutes is done, you'll go up to 25,000 feet. When you get there, they (the instructor) will tell you to take your mask off so that you can get hypoxic."

Symptoms of hypoxia the airmen learn to look out for include, but aren't limited to, rapid breathing, headaches, confusion and anxiety. They will also learn to look out for symptoms of decompression sickness.

According to Urbina, these symptoms can be different for every airmen. Airmen are placed in the chamber to be able to identify what their specific symptoms are.

Prior to each mission, physiologists will identify dive chambers that are close to the areas they fly over. Dive chambers are used to stop the effects decompression sickness has on the body by allowing nitrogen to safely dissolve in the body's tissue. If an airmen starts experiencing symptoms, they will immediately be transferred to the nearest dive chamber until their symptoms subside.

During the initial training and secondary training, airmen will learn how to properly utilize equipment such as oxygen masks.

"The Air Force is about flying, but (the aircraft) is also a piece of equipment," said Urbina. "Equipment breaks, so you have to learn about slow and rapid decompression because that's where physiology comes into play."

According to Urbina, every aerospace physiologist will collaborate with flight medicine at some level to treat airmen who might have continuous adverse effects of altitude change.

Along with fulfilling her duties in physiology, Urbina is also a team member on McChord's Human Performance Optimization program. This program uses wearable technology to monitor airmen's physical health.

"Urbina's ability to branch out and affect things that are related to physiology is amazing," said Tech. Sgt. Jamie Ambrose, the 62d OSS NCO in charge of survival, evasion, resistance, and escape operations. "The (Human Performance Optimization) project she's been a part of has a huge impact on not only what the 62d AW does, but how it can contribute to the Air Force in general."

The knowledge and support provided by Urbina ensures the readiness of Team McChord airmen in executing today's global airlift mission.

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