History of U S Naval Aviation Medicine (Part 5)

The U S Navy was late off the mark in establishing an organization and an institutional culture that would conduce to investigations into the physiologic and psychological problems faced by pilots operating ever more sophisticated and capable aircraft. As one early researcher told it, the medical men often had to use stealth, or “brute force”, to get themselves on teams of engineers and others who were working with the aviators as they pushed ever newer limits of speed, altitude and maneuverability. Finally, with war clouds on the horizon, the Navy organized a research establishment–the Medical Research Section in the Bureau of Aeronautics–and its own School of Aviation Medicine, in 1939.

As I described in the last post, Commander John R Poppen, Medical Corps, USN, had done early work in the development of anti-blackout gear in the mid thirties. The result of this work was the “Poppen Belt”, an abdominal belt that increased pressure in the abdomen to reduce pooling of blood in the great vessels of the abdomen during high-G maneuvers.
The Navy followed up on this early work with G-suit prototypes constructed in 1940. While the basic principles elucidated by Poppen and his team remain the basis for modern G-suits, none of these work completely satisfactorily, mainly because of very slow heart rates and potentially dangerous heart irregularities that result when the suits are activated.

Another area of concern taken up by Navy researchers almost from the opening of the School of Aviation Medicine was that of “disorientation”, which can result from all variety of aerobatic maneuvers and situations. Disorientation can manifest itself as vertigo (dizziness), motion sickness and “visual illusions” that result when there is no clear horizon or other visual cues for the aviator to depend upon for the orientation of his aircraft. It was this latter type of disorientation that contributed to the death of John F Kennedy, Jr. and his wife, in 1999, when the aircraft he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic off Martha’s Vineyard.

Pioneer Navy researcher Dr Ashton Graybiel spent much of his career working of problems of visual illusions and of motion sickness. This work contributed to an ever-increasing emphasis on training pilots for the use and reliance on flight instruments (Kennedy was not instrument qualified). Pilots were taught to avoid “seat of the pants” flying except when visual conditions outside the aircraft were ideal. Dr Graybiel’s later work also led to medical treatments to prevent airsickness, including the commonplace scopolamine patch, a “standard” even today.

In 1940, the Naval medical researchers, in conjunction with the National Research Council Committee on Selection and Training of Civilian Aircraft Pilots, commenced what became known as the “Thousand Aviator Study”. Initially intended to explore the value of psychological and physiological testing as predictors of pilot training success, the study has since expanded in scope and numbers of people studied. At the outset, a large variety of promising pilot screening tests were studied, resulting in the selection of the Flight Aptitude Rating and Aviation Qualification Tests, both of which are still in used today, in modified form, for pilot candidate selection. The Thousand Aviator study lives on in the form of follow-on work called “Special Studies” undertaken to follow Vietnam POWs, the 1980-81 Iran hostages and POWs from the 1991 Iraq war. As late as 2005, results of studies on the balance mechanisms of middle-aged men came out of the Thousand Aviator Study. This work may help us understand the balance problems people experience as part of getting older.

The Navy research programs during World War II undertook work in a vast variety of areas, some of which I hope to detail in future posts.

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