The health and mission effects of helicopter pilots and crewmembers who suffer from back and neck pain due to flying took center stage in late July during the Rotary-Wing Aircraft Seating Forum in Washington, D.C. A panel of speakers from military and scientific industries presented findings—as well as personal experiences—in regards to back and neck pain. The forum included representatives from the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force Research Laboratory. It served as a launching point for the results of a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) survey conducted earlier this year by R Cubed Consulting involving more than 7,000 current and former military pilots and crewmembers operating various helicopters, including Bell, Boeing and Sikorsky variants.
Kristin Hamon of IH Solutions Consulting noted that more than 50 percent of respondents to the DoD survey stated that they experienced discomfort either during or after flight. She added that almost 2,500 active duty pilots and crew experienced discomfort during flight. Another 29 percent “indicated that their discomfort and pain affected their ability to perform their job in flight,” Hamon said, adding that 63 percent did not seek out medical treatment out of fear of being downed.
U.S. Navy Lt. Andrea Phillips presented her Naval Postgraduate School thesis based on a survey of more than 500 Sikorsky MH-60 pilots, 88 percent of which reported experiencing back or neck pain during or directly after flying. One of the main culprits identified is seat design. Helicopter seats are either poorly padded, the padding is worn down or inflated using an “air bladder,” she noted. Air bladder seats are filled prior to flight by blowing into a communal tube to inflate the seats. In Phillips’ survey, pilots and crewmembers were able to contribute comments. She collected 593 responses. “I had a flight on deployment where I was unable to turn my head to the left due to neck pain so I flew [in the] left seat to enable me to see inside the cockpit in the event of an emergency. I was unable to clear the left side of the aircraft without turning my whole torso, so we put a second crewman on the left side,” one pilot responded. Another wrote, “Anything that distracts from an already difficult mission takes away from situational awareness. If I’m thinking about my back pain or trying to find a position that will alleviate the pain, I am not thinking about maintaining situational awareness.”
Philips’ survey also showed that of the 88 percent of pilots who experienced back pain, only 20 percent would see the flight doctor for their pain. Many suffering pilots and crew “aren’t going to the flight doctors because they are worried about being downed.” Phillips added that the medical routine for treatment doesn’t do much to encourage pilots and crew to seek out a flight surgeon. “Basically they get 10 days of Motrin and if they’re not better, [the flight doctors] have to down them,” Phillips said. For some pilots, the combination of heavy helmets, cumbersome equipment and constrictive cockpit space lead to what is commonly known as “helo hunch.”
Helo hunch occurs when pilots lean forward to see out the cockpit windows while resting their elbows on their knees to reach the cyclic and collective. The addition of a helmet, survival vest and night vision goggle (NVG) equipment then places additional weight and strain on the neck and shoulders, as the pilot must keep his head up. The awkwardness of this position is further exacerbated depending on the height of the pilot—the taller the pilot, the more pronounced the hunch. Adding lumbar supports seems like an easy enough adjustment, but as Phillips pointed out, pilots are not allowed to bring unauthorized lumbar pillows during operations “because they view it as an egress hazard.” Phillips remarked that she could not find any documented cases to support this theory.
Dick Healing, with R Cubed Consulting, observed that current seats still follow a design meant to minimize damage and fatalities from vertical crashes that were prevalent during the Vietnam War.
“We have to recognize that we don’t fly the same way we did in Vietnam,” he said. Healing also pointed out that flight time had changed in the intervening years. Vietnam flights were usually “one to two hours,” where flight time during Operation Iraqi Freedom could be anywhere from six to 12 hours. Healing recounted a time when with the Secretary of the Navy’s office he flew with Marines and was told how one pilot brought three rolled-up bath towels to stuff behind his back during flight to provide relief from the pain. Afterward the office sent blow-up belts to squadron. “It wasn’t long before someone said, ‘That is unauthorized equipment. If there’s an accident, that will be the cause of the accident,’” Healing said, adding that the belts were taken away from the squadron.
“Our warfighters are screaming for relief,” said RaNae Contarino of R Cubed Consulting. But are the decision-makers listening?