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UC research helping fighter pilots fly pain-free

Antony Perry

29 August 2017: It’s the downside to being a fighter pilot that wasn’t portrayed in the Hollywood action drama Top Gun, but neck and back pain could soon be a problem of the past for Australia’s combat pilots.

Research underway at the University of Canberra is helping reduce the incidence of musculoskeletal injuries in air force aviators, with high G force, increases in helmet weight, and displaced helmet centre of gravity all known causes of neck and back injuries in pilots and their support crew.

An increase in the use of helmet-mounted devices, particularly night vision equipment, has added to the weight and centre of gravity of modern helmets.

When combined with fast and frequent head movements while flying at high speeds, it results in high neck loading, which subsequently leads to pain in the neck and back.

The project is being led by Bachelor of Physiotherapy honours student Amelia Riches under the supervision of Clinical Assistant Professor of Physiotherapy Phil Newman.

A total of 22 members of the public participated in the study and wore replica flight gear while imitating the movements a pilot would typically make during an aerial battle.

Ms Riches said the data will be used to prevent injuries by informing risk predictions and pre-conditioning efforts.

“We’re trying to replicate what it will be like in terms of neck loading patterns for fast jet pilots,” Ms Riches said.

“With the muscle tendon loads and forces that we will analyse during data collection, we are going to see how we, as physios, can intervene clinically to prevent neck injury for future pilots.

“We’re basically putting a pilot helmet on them and getting them to do a particular manoeuvre called check-6, which is a common manoeuvre pilots use in flights and with that we are taking a motion analysis.

“We’re trying to figure out how much force is going through a muscle or particular muscles in the neck and then hopefully with that information we might be able to implement some sort of conditioning program.”

The project is part of a wider program being run by the Royal Australian Air Force’s AIR Combat Group (ACG).

The Musculoskeletal Injury Reduction Project was commissioned last year after a review of flight practices found head and neck injuries were preventing pilots from properly performing their primary roles.

A number of controls were introduced – including limiting the duration and frequency of night goggle use, lightweight helmets, neck warm ups, and fatigue and usage management – but the problem has continued.

The weight of equipment and helmets is expected to increase in line with the release of new state-of-the-art aircraft in the coming years, prompting the ACG to act now.

Solutions being investigated include improving the physical conditioning of pilots and air crew to reduce and likelihood and impact of injury and improving access to medical support.

The group’s Commander, Air Commodore Steve Roberton, said ensuring the health and safety of pilots and air crew was a high priority.

“The Musculoskeletal Injury Reduction Project has been developed to identify physical, administrative, and personal protective equipment controls aimed at eliminating or minimising the risks associated with fast jet operations and training,” the Air Commodore said.

“Air Force and ACG have a responsibility to do all that is reasonably practical to find solutions for the health and safety of fast jet air crew.”

The Musculoskeletal Injury Reduction Project is expected to be completed this year.