Air Force Featured Stories

Physiological Episodes – Feedback from the pilot community is critical

  • Published
  • By Capt. Matt Murphy
  • Air National Guard
A rise in the number of physiological episodes with primary pilot training aircraft, known as the T-6, is getting a lot of attention from students, instructors and leadership. Air Force Physiological Episodes Action Team leader Brig. Gen. Edward “Hertz” Vaughan recently visited Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, to establish a dialogue and get direct feedback from the pilot community.

“Recent headlines trumpet good news about finding the major cause of many of the T-6 physiological episodes,” Vaughan said. “That really is good news for all involved. However, we need to remember that executing those solutions will require a time phased approach. While many proactive steps are already well underway, and others are coming in the next weeks, the process of procuring and fielding major hardware solutions will require some time.”

Vaughan also sees a path to action and solutions across other aircraft and systems. First, he says, the reports of “problems solved,” quoting Air Force leadership, need perspective.

“There are teams, researchers, maintainers, pilots, medical professionals and a host of other highly qualified professionals who are tackling the issues surrounding physiological episodes. Specific solutions to one aircraft and system, like the T-6, is not a fix to all,” Vaughan said. “But we’re committed to applying the lessons of previous episodes to future operations and acquisitions.”

One of the AF PEAT's lines of effort across aircraft platforms involves exploring internet-of-things micro-sensors and accelerated artificial intelligence, to help the pilots self-assess their physiology real time. AF PEAT's lead physiologist, Maj. Christianne Opresko, sees it as an evolution.

“For years we have relied on aircrew to act as the sensor to bring attention to physiological abnormalities in flight,” Opresko said. “Just as we have sensors in the aircraft that provide real-time feedback on engines and other mechanical systems, our world class operators need monitoring sensors that provide real-time, ‘in the loop’ feedback on physiological and cognitive states. The ultimate goal is to optimize the human, machine, environment interface for mission success.”

Going to Randolph also allowed Vaughan to engage several members of the pilot community to obtain authentic feedback and listen to their concerns. Opinions vary as to which solutions should be fielded and funded first, so front line feedback is critical to AF PEAT’s mission. Coincidentally, during Vaughan’s visit, a T-6 pilot on a routine training flight experienced a PE.

This provided an opportunity for Vaughan to see firsthand how the entire team, including operations, air traffic control, maintenance, medical, physiology and others come together to enhance safety. Focusing on maintenance that afternoon, Vaughan got hands-on experience with the on-board oxygen generating system, or OBOGS, looking through lenses of maintenance.

“We looked at the system in the aircraft, we pulled it out, I held it there in my hands,” Vaughan said. “The timing of my visit and the episode validate the fact that there is more dialogue, more understanding and more time, effort and resources that need to be dedicated to finding long term solutions.”

Vaughan says he sees the big picture in dealing with PEs and by teaming up with the Navy, AF PEAT will be able to make advances toward finding solutions for each of the affected airframes.

“The Secretary of the Air Force wants us to work smarter and faster, across all domains," Vaughan said. “A big challenge for AF PEAT is to help remove process barriers to fielding solutions accurately and rapidly. I am confident this team and our joint partners will continue delivering viable results.”

“PEs can usually be tied back to a system,” he added. “The challenge is definitively knowing which system it is associated with – mechanical, human or a combination of both. This is why the PEATs were created and are working toward finding answers.”