New Device to Train Aviators to Recognize Hypoxia Will Save Lives

Story Number: NNS031106-11Release Date: 11/7/2003 5:16:00 AM
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From Bureau of Medicine and Surgery Public Affairs

PENSACOLA, Fla. (NNS) -- A new device to train aviators to recognize the signs and symptoms of hypoxia offers a safer and more realistic environment for crewmembers to learn proper emergency procedures.

Hypoxia, insufficient oxygen to the brain, occurs rapidly at high altitude. In the past two years, naval aviation has experienced more than a dozen in-flight hypoxia incidents, one of which resulted in the death of the pilot and the loss of an aircraft.

"Most hypoxia incidents during flights result from oxygen system malfunctions, loss of cabin pressurization and other equipment failures," said Lt. Cmdr. Mike Prevost, aerospace physiologist and director of safety and standardization at the Naval Survival Training Institute. "Hypoxia affects every person differently. The only way to determine how an individual will react under hypoxic conditions is to go through the actual experience."

Recently, researchers from the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory (NAMRL) successfully completed testing on the Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device (ROBD), a system they developed. The ROBD duplicates the hypoxia experience in a normal room at ground level using a standard aviation mask and a software program that adds nitrogen to room air, explained Prevost.

NAMRL will transition the ROBD to the Naval Survival Training Institute this month to be incorporated into the training program during the spring of 2004. The new curriculum is scheduled for release at selected survival training centers on the east and west coasts.

For more than 50 years, aerospace physiologists and technicians have provided hypoxia training to Navy and Marine Corps aviators. The current training uses a lower pressure chamber to simulate an altitude of 25,000 feet. While in the chamber, aviators remove their oxygen masks for four minutes and experience hypoxic symptoms, which include everything from euphoria, lightheadedness and visual disturbances to muscle twitching, mental confusion and cyanosis (bluing of the skin, prevalent around the nose, mouth, and fingertips).

"Hypoxia training in an altitude chamber does have its drawbacks. Namely, the training environment is a bit unrealistic and there are numerous medical risks including decompression sickness (DCS) and barotraumas (damage to the ears and sinuses caused by the change in pressure)," added Lt. Anthony Artino, director of Human Performance and Training Technology at the Naval Survival Training Institute.

"Using the ROBD may be more effective training for aviators. The advantages are numerous and include the ability to induce hypoxia with no risk of DCS or barotraumas and the ability to operate the device almost anywhere, including inside a fleet simulator," said Artino.

Ultimately, the Naval Survival Training Institute hopes to provide better, more realistic training by using a combination of the altitude chamber and the ROBD. They intend to take full advantage of the chamber's proven success as a training device while supplementing that training with the ROBD's portability, flexibility, and enhanced realism to help move naval aviation survival training into the next century.

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