OHWS keeps pilots healthy, in air

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Courtney Sebastianelli; Senior Airman Rebeckah Medeiros
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs

The Air Force doesn’t have air superiority without pilots. Along with the constant demand of sorties comes more hours for fighter pilots to sit in the tight cockpit of the A-10 Thunderbolt II. Working through hours in cramped conditions, while wearing a helmet, can add up to years of compiled strain on the neck and spine which can potentially lead to less time in the air.

Taking a proactive approach to pilot wellness versus a reactive response to injury is proving to be vital in maintaining operational readiness for the 23rd Fighter Group pilots at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia.

With the goal of preventing potential injuries associated with flying and maneuvering aircraft, Air Combat Command developed the Optimizing the Human Weapons System Program in 2020.

“OHWS was designed to help fighter aircrew or pilots do pre-emptive and reactive health care,” said Lt Col Jeffrey Lederhouse, 23rd Fighter Group deputy commander and Aircrew Performance Center program manager. “This program is a critical initiative designed to maintain pilot health which ultimately ensures mission success.”

While maintaining an aircraft’s health has always been viewed as a necessary aspect to mission readiness, applying that same concept to maintaining pilots’ health is now proving to be vital to airpower superiority.

“The old way always highlighted the misperception that flight medicine would ground you from flying for the smallest issue, so many pilots would avoid seeking medical attention,” said Col Sean Baerman, 23rd FG commander and command pilot with over 3,200 flight hours. “One of the biggest issues we have with mission readiness is pilot retention. Programs like this keep our experienced pilots flying farther into their career, but more importantly it shows that ACC leadership acknowledges the added strain on fighter pilots and is willing to dedicate resources to helping them.”

One year after the inception of OHWS, Moody implemented the 23rd Fighter Group Aircrew Performance Center. The Aircrew Performance Center team is composed of a licensed massage therapist and two certified athletic trainers. In order to keep the fighter pilots’ mission ready, the team focuses on nutrition, stretching, strength training and injury treatment.
During air-to-air combat or while maneuvering the aircraft, it’s common for pilots to crane their necks in order to look over their shoulders. The constant weight of an approximate 10-pound helmet and the added G force, can cause the helmet to feel like it weighs 30 pounds. That equates to approximately 30 pounds pulling on a pilot’s neck and spine for several minutes at a time.
“Fighter pilots’ bodies go through so much when they fly, with the biggest physical impact just fighting Gs and putting all that compression on their neck and back,” said Robi Boney, 23rd FG Aircrew Performance Center licensed massage therapist. “We see a lot of pilots after long flights that are tight or can’t turn their heads.”

Neck and spinal injuries are just a few of the challenges fighter pilots face. In an effort to reduce an array of injuries, the athletic trainers encourage the pilots to come in for preventative maintenance or nutrition education.

“Our athletic trainers, McKenna and Chantel, keep the pilots loose and limber,” said Boney. “They give them preflight exercises and stretching plans to maintain their range of motion. They also provide tips on strength exercises and education on nutrition.”

According to Baerman, the APC team makes pilot wellness a reality. The team sees anywhere between 70 to 80 pilots in a month across the 74th, 75th and 76th Fighter Squadrons.

“The APC team made the 23rd FG’s program into one of the best in the Air Force because they’re experts, but also really care about the 23rd Fighter Group pilots,” said Baerman. “They go the extra mile, and they built an environment where pilots are willing to seek help. They’re a great supplement to the flight medicine team we have in place at the two fighter squadrons, and this is an incredible improvement over what options we had when I first started flying in 2000.”