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Fit to fly: Doctors keep student pilots healthy

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- (Editor's note: This is the first in a fivepart series covering the training B-course students go through to get in the air.)

For basic F-15 Eagle Basic Course students here strapped in aircraft thundering along at speeds exceeding 500 mph, their mental and physical fitness levels must be always be at peak levels.

And here to help ensure those peak levels are the flight surgeons and aerospace physiologists of the 325th Aeromedical-Dental Squadron. From an initial inprocessing assessment to any required follow-ups, they work to identify any potential physical or mental issues that could affect a student's flight performance.

"We go over their records with a finetooth comb,' said Dr. (Maj.) Manoj Ravi, a flight surgeon with the 325th Aeromedical-Dental Squadron. "We have to adhere to very stringent standards in the Air Force Instruction."

If a condition is identified here that may affect a student's training, a waiver package can be submitted through channels to Headquarters Air Education and Training Command. The major said waiver packages have to be extremely thorough since officials at higher headquarters can't physically see the individual.

Dr. Ravi said the once the waiver package is completed it is routed through the base chief flight surgeon then on to Air Education and Training Command for approval or disapproval. He said in some complex cases, it can reach Headquarters Air Force.

Once approved, the students continue their training. Dr. Ravi said he enjoys working on waiver packages and it provides him a sense of achievement when he can return an aviator to flying status.

Assisting the flight surgeons with their task of keeping the fliers healthy are flight physiologists.

"We provide aerospace physiological training to all students that require it," said 1st Lt. Sara Senechal, aerospace physiologist. "Most, however, have been through the altitude chamber within the past five years and are current when they show up at Tyndall. Another major aspect of our involvement is working with students to prepare them to handle the physiological effects of flying on the human body, specifically the gravity forces associated with flying the Eagle."

The lieutenant said common reasons students have G-problems are poor Gstrain techniques, dehydration, fatigue in the jet and ineffective workouts. She said training given to students includes "anti-G straining maneuver coaching, the importance of good hydration, and maintenance of a proper diet and rest. Additionally, pilots should get involved in both an intense weight training program and aerobic exercises."

To help the doctor further understand the stresses and strains students experience in
the cockpit, the major and the other flight doctors re required to fly 12 times annually. They also review the aircrafts' heads up display tapes to further familiarize themselves.

"We fly one or two sorties a month with pilots to see what they go through and frankly, I can tell you, it's like being in a boxing match," he said. "It's hard work. Not only do they have to manage the G-forces, they have to maintain an optimum level of situational awareness as they fly and fight. They have to process a lot of information in a short time, so it's critical they don't get fixated on one element of flight or distracted by outside concerns."

He said once an issue, whether physical or mental, is discovered, a thorough assessment is conducted and a course of action involving the appropriate officials is determined.

"A minor ache on the ground can become a significant issue in the air," he said. "We have to be aware of any little thing that can throw off a pilot's fitness level.

"Fighter pilots have some inherent characteristics that make them successful," Major Ravi said. "They are extremely intelligent and good at multitasking. They never do anything half way, no matter the task, so we have to watch out that they don't oversaturate themselves.

"Pilots live to fly and fight," the doctor said. "They want to be healthy and they want to fly, and you're helping them achieve that goal, it's a great feeling."