Altitude chamber training deprives Team McChord aircrew members of oxygen

By Jake Chappelle/446 PAO on December 4, 2011

MCCHORD FIELD, Wash. -- Aircrew members from McChord Field prepared themselves for a light-headed day as they strolled through the entrance of the Navy's Aviation Survival Training Center at Whidbey Island, Wash., on a recent November morning.

The crew, consisting of active-duty pilots and a Reserve flight nurse, walked into the break room, coffee and soda in hand, and began filling out paperwork.

However, paperwork isn't why they travelled 126 miles to the Navy base.

Every five years, aircrew members and mission-essential and support flyers are required to attend high-altitude chamber training, said Capt. Dana Thomas, 62nd Medical Squadron, aerospace and operational physiologist here. It's to refresh the students' familiarization with their personal hypoxia, which is the diminished availability of oxygen to the body tissues, symptoms to make sure they can recognize them if involved in an in-flight incident.

But according to Thomas, Air Force Reserve Command was able to purchase a training unit, in order for Team McChord aircrew members to complete their high-altitude training at home station.

"The unit is a Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device," said Thomas. "It's a training device, which mixes (air, oxygen, and nitrogen) in programmed ratios to simulate the hypoxia effects of breathing air at altitude. It involves less risk than the traditional chamber method, while still allowing the training objectives to be accomplished. AFRC has funded two of them for McChord."

This may be good news for traditional Reservists like Capt. Joel Oyama, 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron flight nurse here, who won't have to travel as far for the training.

"You're not going to actual altitude, so you could theoretically perform this training even if you have a minor cold or allergies," said the five-year Reservist. "It'll also mean we can offer more altitude-physiology training without the travel costs, the current setup allows. Being able to schedule and perform your altitude-physiology training during the (Reserve weekends) will be a huge benefit for Reservists."

But even with the current training being at Whitbey Island, Team McChord Airmen still take advantage of the Navy's hospitality.

"Attending the altitude chamber was a tremendous opportunity," said Oyama. "If I'm having problems with hypoxia, I can bet my patients are having an even harder time. Increasing oxygen delivery can influence what devices I need to use with the patients, to ensure they get enough."

The two-day training is composed of two parts.

The first day is a classroom session, taught at McChord Field, which covers physiological factors, such as situational awareness, spatial disorientation, human physiology in the flight environment, personal preparation, and risk reduction, said Thomas, who's been teaching the classroom portion for the last five years.

The second day is the Navy-instructed, hands-on portion in the chamber at Whidbey Island.

The ASTC Whidbey Island low-pressure chamber (or altitude chamber) consists of three separate sub-chambers which may all be opened or all isolated depending on the training configuration, said Cmdr. Richard Folga, ASTC director. A vacuum pump lowers the atmospheric pressure inside to achieve the desired training altitude, replicating conditions that may be experienced in flight, including rapid decompression.

After the students finished their necessary paperwork, they signed out Quick Don oxygen masks, and began their hands-on training.

"The chamber 'flight' started with checking emergency-oxygen equipment, to ensure it can operate effectively," said Oyama, who works as critical-care nurse for Kaiser Permanente in Portland, Ore. "This is similar to our preflight activities on the aircraft."

In order to ensure everyone kept a clear mind, the crew was given different tasks during the training.

"We were given written exercises, which tested map identification skills, simple math problems, and a device to measure oxygen saturations during the flight," said Oyama. "The written exercises were meant to help us see how our mental and visual skills could be impaired due to lack of oxygen at higher altitudes."

When everyone finished their exercises, the chamber engineers took the crew up to a simulated altitude of 20,000 feet.

According to Oyama, this is the level where he began to notice some hypoxia signs.

"At the later stages of the flight I noticed I had mild hypoxia symptoms which were, slightly harder breathing, sinus pressure, and fatigue," said the Portland resident. "I was more focused on looking for my hypoxia symptoms, so I can correct this if it seems like it's happening to me in (real-world) flight."

According to Thomas, the crew got certified on their training and the Navy was to thank for being gracious enough to offer their facility to the Air Force.

With the closing of the chamber at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., which is the one aircrews used to train in, Thomas was able to make arrangements with the Navy to use their facility.

"I worked with the ASTC staff at (Whidbey Island) and got permission from my leadership at (Air Force Medical Operation Agency) to accomplish the training using the current method," said Thomas.

Folga said, regardless of the service branch, aircrew members need this training.

"The Navy and Air Force encounter this hypoxia threat," said Folga. "Regardless of technology advancements, we still find that war fighters need to be familiar with their personal hypoxia symptoms and be reminded periodically of how hypoxia impairs their judgment and performance."

The joint relationship between the two branches is critical, according to Folga.

"We get more joint every day," said Folga. "This is just another example of how we're evolving as a military."

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