View Full Version : Physical therapists dispense relief, advice to aching fliers

04-22-03, 06:49 AM
April 21, 2003

Physical therapists dispense relief, advice to aching fliers

By Gordon Trowbridge
Air Force Times staff writer

FROM A FORWARD AIR BASE, Persian Gulf region — Maj. Laura Fields may have the toughest job in the military: straightening out fighter pilots.
Or, more exactly, their spines — along with the other joints and muscles that take a beating in modern jet cockpits. Fields, a physical therapist with the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group, and her two assistants are pioneering what could be called combat physical therapy in what they believe is the most aggressive therapy program ever pursued at a forward fighter base.

Instead of waiting for pilots to come to them, Fields’ team is making house calls, walking a regular beat of squadron rooms and seeking out pilots with aches and pains, practicing preventive medicine instead of treating problems after they occur. Word of mouth quickly put their services in high demand; on a recent evening tour through Marine Corps squadrons here, pilots lined up like kids for ice cream.

“They’re working 12-hour shifts or longer, flying sortie after sortie, and when they’re not flying or getting ready to, they’re on crew rest, so they need to sleep and they’re in pain,” Fields said. “We need to go to them.”

Simple as the idea sounds, Fields said, as far as she knows it’s the first time it’s been pursued.

“The idea came from one of our pilots,” said Airman 1st Class Amy Rodriguez, Fields’ top assistant. “He’d been coming to us for treatment, and I saw him at the chow hall one day. He said, ‘Hey, do you guys make house calls?’ and it just clicked.”

And so the AV-8 Harrier and F/A-18 Hornet crews line up, waiting for their 10 minutes on the mat. Fields or Rodriguez lay the men and women down on their backs and work them through a series of stretches, mobilizing joints and muscles, trying to restore them to full motion.

The treatment is a relief, said Marine Lt. Col. Steve Waugh, a Harrier pilot who describes a fighter cockpit as something near to a torture chamber.

“Go to the most uncomfortable chair in your house,” he said. “Sit down and strap yourself in so tight that you can’t slip your hand between your body and the straps. That’s what the cockpit’s like.”

There’s more. Pilots wear as much as 100 pounds of equipment, punishing back muscles. The helmet and, on night missions, night-vision goggles weigh down the head, straining the neck and upper back. Maneuvering the jet adds the weight of G-forces to that strain, further battering muscles and joints.

Fields said Harrier pilots can be especially vulnerable because of what they call the “Harrier hunch.” Most pilots, Waugh said, prefer to set their seats as high as possible in the cockpit, for better visibility of the ground when the plane hovers for vertical takeoff or landing. But most of the information they need while flying is in their heads-up display, which the high-seated pilot must scrunch down to view. The unnatural position leads to constant aches in the neck, back and shoulders.

Fields said her crew’s most important job isn’t the on-the-scene stretching, but educating aircrews about how to better prepare themselves for the rigor of flying jets. She’s a big proponent of exercises to strengthen the muscles most taxed by air combat.

And she hopes her team’s work continues long after the war. She is collecting data from this deployment on injuries and pains suffered by fliers and hopes to publish a technical paper using the data to pinpoint the sources of the injuries. The data, she said, could point to improvements in cockpits that could eliminate injuries, or pinpoint the most effective treatments once an injury occurs.


Air Force Maj. Laura Fields gives treatment to Lt. Col. Steve Waugh during a visit with Marine pilots in Iraq to give them physical therapy to help them work kinks out of their backs and necks caused by flying numurous missions over Iraq. — Alan Lessig / Air Force Times