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Altitude Chamber
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Earnest Powell, 20th Aerospace Medicine Squadron aerospace and operational physiology technician, briefs students on the equipment in an altitude chamber at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., July 10, 2012. The hypobaric chamber is used to simulate different altitudes pilots and crew members may experience during a mission and the different dangers that high altitudes may pose. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Amber E. N. Jacobs/Released)
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Climbing to 25,000 feet (without leaving the ground)

Posted 7/17/2012   Updated 7/17/2012 Email story   Print story


by Senior Airman Amber E. N. Jacobs
20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

7/17/2012 - SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C.  -- As passengers checked their oxygen equipment by handling their masks and hoses, switches and gauges they prepared for takeoff here July 10.

While the crew glanced at one another and fidgeted, they slowly breathed in and out began to ascend to an altitude of 25,000-feet -- without ever leaving the ground.

The nine crew members, who consisted of Army, Air Force and Marines, arrived at Shaw's aerospace physiology building Tuesday morning to take part in a high altitude parachutist course. It is one of several different courses and the most frequently taught which the 20th Aerospace Medicine Squadron offers to people on flying status.

Despite being a fighter base the main customer here is the Army, said Capt. Michael Armstrong, 20th AMS aerospace and operational physiologist. Since students only need to take altitude courses once every five years to be qualified to fly, the majority of the students are parachutists that come from other bases like Joint Base Pope-Bragg, N.C.

The five-hour-long course consisted of a four-hour classroom lecture and one-hour chamber flight in a hypobaric chamber.

The chamber is used to simulate different altitudes pilots and crew members may experience during a mission, said Senior Airman Jessica Brutschea, 20th AMS aerospace and operational physiology technician.

"Altitude actually poses a lot of threats that people aren't aware of," explained Brutschea.

"Most people only fly commercially and they (airlines) make it so safe you don't even know that there is a possibility you could be in danger," she added.

One of the main lessons instructors emphasize during each course is the danger of hypoxia.

"Essentially . . . hypoxia is a decrease of oxygen content in the blood that affects the brain and tissues of the body," explained Armstrong. "If I take a pilot up to 25,000-feet and take his oxygen away he only has three to five minutes before he is incapacitated by hypoxia."

As the crew members removed their oxygen masks and were instructed to fill out a worksheet they began to experience hypoxia. Once a member felt the effects of hypoxia they had to correct the situation.

"I didn't realize it was happening until I looked down at the worksheet and I couldn't really make a choice on what to do, my eyesight started going and then someone next to me told me to put my mask on," said U.S. Army Spc. Christopher Stahl, a parachutist from JBPB Airborne Special Operations Test Directorate.

As the chamber flight descended the students began to look more relaxed.

"It's surprising how fast it comes on, and how fast it hits you since you're not really recognizing the symptoms. When it does hit you it's like, 'Whoa something's wrong,'" Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Zimmerman, Golden Knights parachutist, explained.

Once the flight concluded the students were debriefed and the training came to an end.

"Physiology training is important because it gives the aircrew member an additional tool to use when flying," Armstrong said. "When they are out there performing their missions and get into a critical situation they can draw . . . from the training that they learned here to help them make those critical decisions in a timely manner," he added.

While Shaw is home to one of 10 altitude chambers Air Force wide, with the nearest chambers being located at Tyndall and Langley Air Force Bases, the 20th AMS supports all services within the local area and beyond.

11/14/2014 4:22:21 PM ET
I went through altitude training at Johnson AB Japan back in the early 1960s. We didn't stop at 25000 feet but were taken to a simulated altitude of 51000 feet. We were given classes for a week before the simulated ascent and were told that when we came in on that final day we should not have eaten any gas producing foods. Above about 10000 feet the main sound in the chamber was the putt-putt-putting of gas escaping from about a dozen derrieres. We were thankful for our oxygen masks.
Charlie Sommers, United States
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