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Sheppard receives AETC's first spatial disorientation flight trainer

  • Published
  • By George Woodward
  • 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs
A stone pillar etched with the names of 34 Army Air Corps officers stands outside the Museum of North Texas History in Wichita Falls, Texas. It is a silent testament to the risk inherent in aviation and to the courage of its early pioneers - all 34 gave their lives during pilot training operations at Call Field between 1917 and 1919.

In the nearly 100 years since, the Air Force has made monumental strides in flight safety, and today another important milestone was added to that heritage as Air Education and Training Command unveiled its first spatial disorientation flight trainer at the 82nd Aerospace Medicine Squadron, Sheppard AFB, Texas.

Officially called the GYRO Integrated Physiological Trainer II, it represents a major advance in pilot safety, according to Lt. Col. Andrew Woodrow, Chief of AETC's Physiology Programs Branch.

"Spatial disorientation is the unnerving sense of mismatch a maneuvering pilot can feel when confronted with conflicting cues from the aircraft instruments, the body's 'internal gyros', and what he or she expects to see through the canopy," Woodrow said. "Until now, the only way a student pilot could learn to fully recognize and recover from spatial disorientation was to strap in and fly. This trainer changes that."

While previous demonstrators used in flight training allowed students to feel the effects of spatial disorientation, the GYRO IPT II will expose them to the physical effects as they fly a simulated T-6 Texan II sortie.

"A student will strap into the cab, which is modeled after T-6 cockpit, and begin flying a typical simulator sortie," said Maj. Eydin Hansen, Flight Commander, Aerospace and Operational Physiology. "The instructor will then use the full-motion capabilities of the trainer to expose the student to visual and vestibular illusions they might typically experience in flight. The goal is for the student to successfully recognize when they're experiencing spatial disorientation, then combat the effects of in-flight illusions and continue the simulated sortie safely."

With the GYRO IPT II we can challenge their sensory systems, to include their vision, vestibular (inner ear), auditory (sound), and seat of the pants (gravitational forces) which regulates the body's sense of orientation in-flight, he said.

The end result is a student pilot who has had realistic, transferable experience with spatial disorientation before they ever sit in the cockpit of an actual T-6; And that means reduced risk for students and instructor pilots.

"Flight operations - especially training operations - carry inherent risk, so any time you can reduce that risk it's good for the mission," said Capt. Taylor Zahm of the 80th Operations Support Squadron.

"It takes skill and experience to maintain flight control when what you see and what your sense of balance is telling you don't match," Zahm said. "The GYRO will allow students to start developing that skill before they ever leave the ground."

For 82nd AMDS Commander Lt. Col. Stephen Wolf, the new trainer is just the latest in a long history of tools used by the medical community to support the Air Force's flying mission.

"Our whole purpose is to prepare aviators to deal with the physiological rigors of flight," Wolf said. "Human beings are not naturally creatures of the air, so whether the issue is spatial disorientation, or oxygen deprivation, or simply the physical stresses on the body, we exist to help pilots to prepare for, mitigate and overcome those challenges. The GYRO IPT II will allow us to prepare pilots to cope with a specific and significant physiological risk in a safe, controlled environment."

While Sheppard is the first to receive one, eventually each undergraduate pilot training base and Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, will have one of the trainers by January 2016. At that point, all pilot training syllabi will include this valuable training for recognition and recovery from the dangers of spatial disorientation.