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Medical Monday: Breathing Life into Pilots and Passengers

The following post was written by VADM Adam M. Robinson, Jr. U.S. Navy Surgeon General and first appeared on DoDLive.

(PENSACOLA, Florida) Lt Cmdr. Jeff Repass, Head of Aviation Survival Training Center (ASTC), Pensacola shows Vice Adm. Adam M. Robinson, Navy Surgeon General, the Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device (ROBD) during his tour of Navy medical commands in the Gulf Coast region Oct 20, 2010. The ROBD creates a reduced oxygen environment for pilots while they are in a simulated flying environment to help them recognize subtle symptoms of hypoxia and perform corrective emergency procedures. (U.S. Navy photo by Capt. Cappy Surette)

This month we celebrate the centennial of Naval Aviation.  This is a huge milestone in the history of our service and I am incredibly proud of our aviation community.  For the past 100 years, Navy Medicine has been committed to keeping our pilots and aviators in the air and I am elated at the success we’ve had and the partnerships we’ve built within the community.  We have been and continue to be honored to provide expeditionary medical support wherever the Naval Aviation community deploys to ensure a medically ready, fit, and safe aviation community.

Navy Medicine and Naval Aviation forged a strong partnership that dates back almost as long as Naval Aviation itself and we continue to build upon that foundation today. Today, our Naval Flight Surgeons, Naval Aerospace and Operational Physiologists, Aerospace Physiology Technicians, Search & Rescue Medical Technicians, and Aerospace Medical Technicians are working side by side with Aircrews around the world to ensure the medical readiness of aviators and their crews.

Navy Medicine has numerous ongoing operations and research and development projects in direct support to the aviation community.  Fatigue and operational stress management remain key challenges for the aviation community.  Navy Medicine is adopting mitigating measures, making cycle time adjustments, and applying new medications so that our aviators and their crew can remain alert throughout long missions without any potentially dangerous side effects.  I am particularly impressed with the work we’ve done in the field of aviation medicine research.  A few examples include:

The Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory (NAMRL) developed a Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device (ROBD), to produce hypoxia in humans without the dangers associated with extreme changes in atmospheric pressure. It allows a “train as you fly” hypoxia symptom recognition program for aviators.

NAMRL recently conducted an evaluation of several promising instruments for rapid, reliable fatigue detection.  The initial study results have indicated that two tests, one a computerized cognitive test and the other a measure of eye movement speed, proved to be highly sensitive to the effects of sleep deprivation.

NAMRL researchers studied a pharmaceutical, wake promoting medication to facilitate warfighter attention and vigilance during extended operations.  The medication was found effective in sustaining a person’s attention and on-task performance more than 12 hours after taking the medication.

Navy Medicine also has numerous schools that address the particular medical challenges of aviation community.  For example, the Naval Survival Training Institute (NSTI) works directly with aviators to assist the joint warfighter in winning the fight by providing safe, effective, and relevant human performance and survival training.   The Navy’s School of Aviation Safety medical staff instructs aviators on the human causal factors for mishaps and trains them to be aware of their own physiological and psychological needs and responses in hazardous and stressful aviation scenarios.

There are other ways that our partnership produces tangible benefits as well.   Navy Medicine and Naval Aviation work in tandem to rapidly evacuate our combat wounded from the point of injury to a Forward Operating Base to higher echelon levels of medical care as the injury necessitates.  This has greatly increased the survival rate which now stands at about 97 percent—an unprecedentedly high rate for which I personally carry a tremendous amount of pride in the efforts of our medical professionals.

While all of these operations and initiatives are demonstrative of the remarkable progress we are making in the field of aviation medicine, we still face continuing operational and manning challenges.  To meet the unique medical needs of the aviation community, especially in challenging environments like Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, we are increasing the size of all three aerospace medicine technical ratings.  One of the ways we are doing this is to convert some Hospital Corpsmen to Aviation Physiology Technicians (APT) and have built fitness training programs for all possible candidates to help prepare them for the rigors of Aircrew training and ensure we are getting the crewmen through the pipeline that the aviation community needs.

The point here is, Navy Medicine plays a critical support role in the Naval Aviation community’s ability to carry out their mission by ensuring maximum performance, survivability, and medical operational readiness. This is a mission we have proudly executed for one hundred years and will continue in the future.

Over 200 events are taking place around the country this year to celebrate Naval Aviation’s heritage and history as well as to showcase new airframes and discuss the aviation community’s evolving mission.  I encourage you and your families to attend one of these events in your community.

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