Physical fighter flying requires strength, mobility, long-term health – now there’s help

  • Published
  • By Micah Garbarino
  • 388th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – A recently established program with a new facility in the 388th Fighter wing will combat new or pre-existing injuries to pilots caused by the physical nature of flying fighter aircraft.

Flying is physical?

For Air Force fighter pilots, dogfighting can be a physical, draining experience. If they slip up mentally, lose sight of the enemy, or lose control of the aircraft, they’ve lost.

The body is under constant strain – experiencing up to nine times the force of gravity, turning an 11-pound head and five-pound helmet into 144 pounds. They crane their neck to keep eyes on an enemy, then pull Gs to get out of a bad position or gain a tactical advantage – ligaments strain, neck joints crackle, internal organs jostle.

Sometimes, it feels like being in a car wreck. They can be sore for days. All in a day’s training, or maybe even twice a day, for hours.

“I’ve been flying fighters for 18 years and have had my fair share of neck and back issues,” said Lt. Col. Michael Blauser, 388th Operations Group deputy commander. “Aircraft like the F-35 are highly agile and maneuverable, and can expose your body to extremely high G forces. We go through a lot of training to help us learn to deal with them, but over time, they put tremendous strain on your body.”

Optimizing the Human Weapon System

Run by three athletic trainers, a massage therapist and an active-duty flight doctor who provides clinical supervision, the Optimizing the Human Weapon System program aims to keep pilots in the fight and improve their quality of life and career longevity. The goal is to prevent injuries before they occur using strength, conditioning, diet, and holistic treatment methods.

Air Combat Command started the program in 2020 and established OHWS sections at ACC units around the world. It has taken more than a year to get equipment, staff and certifications, but they are now completely up and running. The 388th is one of the first fighter wings to have a fully-functioning section, which offers everything from personalized preventative fitness plans to therapy.

“We’ve all put on the pilots’ gear and sat in a cockpit. We were able to see where all the force would be straining on their bodies. And, when they’re not flying, they are at a desk mission-planning all day, which leads to ‘tech neck’ – poor posture and lack of mobility that can make any spine issues worse,” said athletic trainer Ashley Patterson.

The athletic trainers took that information and developed specific prevention programs – exercises that pilots can knock out quickly before or after a flight – including resistance training equipment and techniques used to strengthen the necks and backs of professional football players, said trainer Corey DeBarbrie.

The trainers also wrote daily, whole-body training regimens that pilots can complete in the OHWS gym. These programs focus on increasing mobility and core strength to those muscles that support the spine.

Preserving flying status

An injury that affects a pilot’s movement ability can hinder their flying status, which has a direct impact on personal and squadron readiness.

“Our goal is to keep them flying, but if they have an issue that needs treatment, we also have some options here like dry-needling, cupping, or massage therapy,” DeBarbrie said.

One of the most beneficial aspects of the program is that there is no medical referral necessary to use the services of OHWS and they are located within the fighter squadron.

“We can provide expedited specialty care where needed,” said sports medicine physician, Lt. Col. Matthew Compton. “This might mean facilitating a same-day visit with me for an ultrasound examination, an MRI or visit with an off base orthopedic surgeon (to figure out a treatment plan) within days.”  

This process could take weeks or months through established Tricare processes, said Compton.

Blauser, who has benefited from the program, calls the OHWS program “essential” for pilots to “stay in the fight.” The team also finds satisfaction in their contribution to the wing’s mission.

“It’s very rewarding,” said trainer Lannelle Emerson. “We’re not just keeping them on flying status today, but potentially prolonging their careers and improving their quality of life. They Air Force has invested a lot in them and we’re taking care of them.”