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Peterson AFB high altitude chamber prepares aircrews for flight

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Capt. James Outland, 54th Helicopter Squadron from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., gets fitted for a mask before entering the high altitude chamber at the Aerospace and Operational Physiology Lab on Dec. 10, 2015. The high altitude chamber, one of 11 in the Air Force, gives pilots and aircrew members an understanding of how the human body reacts to altitudes and low oxygen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Capt. James Outland, 54th Helicopter Squadron from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., gets fitted for a mask before entering the high altitude chamber at the Aerospace and Operational Physiology Lab on Dec. 10, 2015. The high altitude chamber, one of 11 in the Air Force, gives pilots and aircrew members an understanding of how the human body reacts to altitudes and low oxygen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Airman 1st Class Laura Perez, 21st Aerospace Medical Squadron aerospace and operational physiological technician, briefs pilots and aircrew members from across the nation about the high altitude chamber simulation they’re about to participate in Dec. 10, 2015. The students were there for a refresher helicopter course, which highlighted spatial disorientation, risk reduction and situational awareness. The chamber allowed them to feel the effects of low oxygen at a high altitude in a safe training environment, which would help them recognize those symptoms in a real situation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Airman 1st Class Laura Perez, 21st Aerospace Medical Squadron aerospace and operational physiological technician, briefs pilots and aircrew members from across the nation about the high altitude chamber simulation they’re about to participate in Dec. 10, 2015. The students were there for a refresher helicopter course, which highlighted spatial disorientation, risk reduction and situational awareness. The chamber allowed them to feel the effects of low oxygen at a high altitude in a safe training environment, which would help them recognize those symptoms in a real situation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – An oxygen regulator is part of the high altitude chamber used by the Aerospace and Operational Physiology flight at Peterson Air Force Base, Dec. 10, 2015. The chamber allows aircrew initial and refresher physiological training to help aircrew and pilots to identify how their body reacts to the altitude and low oxygen in a safe environment rather than while in-flight. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – An oxygen regulator is part of the high altitude chamber used by the Aerospace and Operational Physiology flight at Peterson Air Force Base, Dec. 10, 2015. The chamber allows aircrew initial and refresher physiological training to help aircrew and pilots to identify how their body reacts to the altitude and low oxygen in a safe environment rather than while in-flight. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – An inverted flask and beaker sits at the edge of the high altitude chamber at the Aerospace and Operational Physiology Lab at Peterson Air Force Base on Dec. 10, 2015. During a helicopter refresher course, the students experienced the effects of low oxygen at a simulated 25,000 feet in a training environment while the flask provided a visual representation of what happens with the fluid in people’s ears if proper techniques aren’t used to equalize pressure. The chamber at Peterson AFB is one of 11 in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – An inverted flask and beaker sits at the edge of the high altitude chamber at the Aerospace and Operational Physiology Lab at Peterson Air Force Base on Dec. 10, 2015. During a helicopter refresher course, the students experienced the effects of low oxygen at a simulated 25,000 feet in a training environment while the flask provided a visual representation of what happens with the fluid in people’s ears if proper techniques aren’t used to equalize pressure. The chamber at Peterson AFB is one of 11 in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Master Sgt. Shannon Brady, 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron flight chief, teaches students in a helicopter refresher course in the high altitude chamber Dec. 10, 2015. The high altitude chamber provides initial and refresher training for pilots and aircrew so they are able to recognize the effects low oxygen has on their bodies at a simulated altitude of 25,000 feet. The chamber at Peterson AFB is one of 11 in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Master Sgt. Shannon Brady, 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron flight chief, teaches students in a helicopter refresher course in the high altitude chamber Dec. 10, 2015. The high altitude chamber provides initial and refresher training for pilots and aircrew so they are able to recognize the effects low oxygen has on their bodies at a simulated altitude of 25,000 feet. The chamber at Peterson AFB is one of 11 in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Airmen from the Aerospace and Physiology Operations Flight monitor students during their refresher helicopter training course in a high altitude chamber Dec. 10, 2015. Each position - crew chief, instructor and recorder – is integral to the success of the mission where students are taken to a simulated 25,000 feet to feel the effects of low oxygen at high altitudes and know how their body reacts in a safe environment. In addition, the students learn how to respond to any adverse effects low oxygen may have to keep themselves and their passengers safe in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Airmen from the Aerospace and Physiology Operations Flight monitor students during their refresher helicopter training course in a high altitude chamber Dec. 10, 2015. Each position - crew chief, instructor and recorder – is integral to the success of the mission where students are taken to a simulated 25,000 feet to feel the effects of low oxygen at high altitudes and know how their body reacts in a safe environment. In addition, the students learn how to respond to any adverse effects low oxygen may have to keep themselves and their passengers safe in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Whether a pilot in training or a veteran taking a refresher course, service members from all around the Unites States come to Peterson Air Force Base to experience the high altitude chamber and learn how to recognize the effects lack of oxygen has on their body.

The Aerospace and Operational Physiology Flight offers training for personnel to learn and understand the human challenges inherent to military operations and increase the overall readiness and mission effectiveness.

"We train aircrew about how the human body is affected by flight," said Maj. Nathan Maertens, 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron aerospace and operational physiology flight commander. "The reason for the high altitude chamber is because at high altitude there is not a lot of oxygen and there's less pressure. We want them to experience that in a safe training environment."

Any operational aircrew and special operations personnel must go through the training to be able to recognize how their body reacts to low oxygen should their pressurized aircraft become unpressurized at a high altitude, he said. Those needing training must be initially qualified and receive a refresher course every five years.

At the beginning of the course, students have a classroom session going over a variety of topics, depending on what their course is based on, said Airman 1st Class Ben Clark, 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron aerospace and operational physiological technician.

"Everyone gets the same initial training," he said. "Everyone is going to run through the chamber the first time and get a rapid decompression. The basic information will be the same across the board, but then we tailor information specifically to each mission."

Topics covered include cognitive performance, situational awareness and shortcomings on decision making, spatial disorientation and how a person's body can lie to them while in flight, Maertens said.

"We also talk about the physical limitations one may have to deal with, whether that be fatigue due to a high ops tempo or (failing) to appropriately prepare for the mission and skipping breakfast," he said. "All those different things can have an effect on how we perform."

To begin, students are fitted with a mask and file into the high altitude chamber, which is essentially a metal box that the air gets pumped out of to simulate the low oxygen and decreased pressure found at high altitudes, said Clark.

Students first get taken up to a simulated 1,000 feet to get the feel of the chamber and brought back to ground level while three AOP technicians watch closely. Then, the technician acting as the crew chief controlling the vacuum and altitude of the chamber takes the students up to 25,000 feet. The instructor speaks over a headset about what each student could be feeling and what to look for as the altitude gets higher and the monitor records visible reactions students have and time spent at the high elevation.

Maertens said students remove their masks and are off oxygen briefly while at 25,000 feet to help students get a feel for how their body reacts to the hypoxic environment.

"They can recognize, 'wow, I'm not feeling quite right. My pressurization system looks like it's working right, but something's not right,'" he said. "They can start cross checking other things and determine the origin of the problem."

A small inverted flask in a beaker filled with red fluid sits next to the window as a visual representation of the pressure changes taking place, Maertens said.

"As we ascend in altitude, the pressure decreases and therefore the additional pressure inside your middle ear wants to correlate with the pressure outside. Then the additional pressure will vent out, like the bubbles we saw," he said. "Conversely, on descent, we have relatively high pressure outside us and low pressure inside. That's what draws the fluid up into the beaker."

The AOP high altitude chamber is one of only 11 chambers in the Air Force. With a flight of only 14 Airmen to train aircrew on high altitude and the dangers of hypoxia, Clark said roughly 50 service members come through each week to be qualified.

The family-like unit works hard to complete a mission essential to ensuring all service members are fully aware of the effects their bodies experience at high altitudes.

"I get a lot out of this job," Clark said. "This is what I love. It's awesome getting to keep people out of really serious mishaps. That means a lot to me."

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