Attrition: High Speed Blackouts Are Deadly


November 13, 2011: The U.S. Air Force recently revealed that an F-16 pilot, killed when his aircraft dove into the ground during an air combat training exercise, appears to have passed out because high G-forces while making a high-speed turn at 6,000 meters (18,000 feet). Fighter pilots are equipped and trained to deal with handling up to 9 Gs. But some of these methods require the pilot to contract abdominal muscles and take a deep breath to maintain consciousness. It is believed that the recent death was the result of the pilot forgetting to tighten up and take a deep breath, as he was concentrating on the complex, and high-G, maneuver he was undertaking.

G (gravity)-forces are not a problem for most other aircraft, but are a critical shortcoming for modern fighters. Over the last decade, more powerful engines, and computer assisted flight controls, have enabled fighters to not only execute increasingly violent maneuvers, but to do it more quickly and in different directions. Because of this, medical doctors have gotten involved in the design of these aircraft, because the flight control systems have to be designed so that the aircraft cannot easily make a maneuver that the pilot cannot handle.

For over half a century, aircraft have been capable to executing maneuvers, usually sharp turns while moving at high speeds, that create a gravitational force (G-force) that causes the pilot to black out. If a pilot is properly equipped, with special flight suits that use small liquid or air filled bladders to help prevent blood from rushing from the brain, and causing a blackout, during high g force maneuvers, a G-force nine times normal gravity ("9 Gs") can be tolerated. But even with the G suit, pilots have to use their abdominal muscles and a deep breath to avoid blackout.

In the last few decades, computer assisted flight controls have been developed that prevent the pilot from executing a maneuver that would exceed 9 Gs. But as aircraft become faster and more agile, there are more directions the aircraft can be going while pulling lots of Gs. Pilots now have to worry about neck injuries, if they execute certain maneuvers without positioning their head just so. Just another thing to keep in mind during a dog-fight, in addition to the gut clench and deep breath.

For decades now, fighter pilots have had to spend a lot of time in the gym, in order to be able to handle the G forces, even with the G suit. Otherwise, pilots can get groggy, or even pass out in flight, as well as land with strained muscles. All this gym time is one reason fighter pilots are such chick magnets.


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