10 January 2022
Naval Station Patuxent River, Md. --
The Navy values partnerships to strengthen productivity and operability. At the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), naval aviation bridges medicine with technology where both civilians and military partner to enhance safety among aviators, air crewmembers, and maintainers.
“We’ve integrated aeromedical expertise with engineering to improve and advance engineering design for aviation and warfighter technology,” said Cmdr. Matthew Doubrava, NAWCAD’s flight surgeon and Aeromedical Monitoring and Analysis branch head, part of the command’s Human Systems Engineering Department (HSED).
“We do this so we have greater survivability of our aircrew, greater lethality of our operational forces, to promote aviation safety, and prevent mishaps.”
In or out of the Navy, it’s rare to find medical experts working alongside engineers and technologists. NAWCAD’s aeromedical initiative takes common problems experienced by the fleet with their human systems – anything that the aircrew touches, or that touches the aircrew – and improves them for today’s service members with a greater human-centric perspective.
The Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) has provided certain clinical-type billets to a research and developmental organization.
Today, Medical Corps and Medical Service Corps psychologists, physiologists, optometrists, audiologists, and physicians work closely with mechanical, aerospace, electrical, chemical, and other engineers. These medical officers bridge a gap by providing a fleet operational perspective and biomedical expertise to civilian engineers advancing Navy and Marine Corps platforms and equipment.
NAWCAD is the Navy’s largest warfare center with over 300 labs advancing capability and operational readiness for naval aviation and our warfighters.
More than a dozen of the labs are dedicated to human systems research where teams of scientists and engineers work to improve equipment such as visors, goggles, hearing protection, helmets, seats, suits, mission systems, and other research dedicated to human capabilities that require this type of gear.
The staggering complexity of NAWCAD’s human systems lab are a testament to the sophisticated approaches it takes to solve problems that humans encounter in flight. These labs look at everything from acceleration forces to the gases humans breathe.
The horizontal acceleration facility uses a high velocity sled to test acceleration and deceleration forces that help determine crashworthiness and the potential survivability of an impact.
The Environmental Physiology and Human Performance lab can change from freezing to high temperatures and low to high humidity to test clothing and equipment in a variety of environmental conditions. There is an emersion pool where volunteers wear flight equipment while they lower the water temperature to test flight equipment to simulate cold-water survival situations.
The Audiology Lab has anechoic and reverberation chambers to measure hearing protection and communications systems both in quiet and noisy environments. Special labs can simulate the altitudes where aircrew fly to find better ways to prevent or detect hypoxia. Finally, in oxygen and gas labs where researchers look at breathing gases and their mixtures to ensure the right amount of oxygen is delivered to the air crew – all located at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland.
“When we’re at a point in technology development where equipment is mature enough for test in the field, we have to get feedback from people to tell us how it fits, how it’s working, or if it enhances or degrades their performance,” said Cmdr. Doubrava. “Test-dummies can simulate many elements, but we will eventually need humans to test the gear so we get real human feedback.”
The history behind naval aviation’s aeromedical partnership can be described with three different periods or milestones. The first period was during the Second World War where naval aerospace medicine started performing experiments for supporting the fleet.
A classic example is experimentation surrounding dive bombers and the accelerations they were exposed to when delivering a payload. The Navy stood up its Naval Aerospace Medicine Research Lab (NAMRL) in Pensacola to explore these problems.
NAMRL was instrumental in developing selection criteria for aircrew personnel, and today the is located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base where it joined with the Navy Environmental Health Effects laboratory creating the Naval Medical Research Unit Dayton in 2010 as part of Congressional Base Realignment and Closure.
The second period came after WWII, when the U.S. entered the Jet Age, and aircraft took a tremendous leap in capability and performance. Research began to look at the more aggressive acceleration forces from faster aircraft, the higher altitudes the aircraft performed in, and the survivability from high-speed escape systems created by ejection seats. NAMRL provided critical training systems and high-G centrifuges to train pilots.
But the need for aeromedical research took a big jump during the third period: the Space Age. The Space Age presented all-new physiologic and engineering problems that hadn’t been considered. Here we faced problems that involved unbelievable acceleration forces, microgravity, working in space outside the spacecraft, and walking on the moon.
The early astronauts trained in Pensacola where researchers developed much knowledge during astronauts’ training in the centrifuges. During the Gemini Project, aerospace research advanced into the areas of longevity of spaceflight and extravehicular activity. The U.S. learned enough to put people to the moon safely.
Once that goal the United States reached this goal, research began to wane. By 2005, Congress consolidated all DOD aerospace medicine activity to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base so the Navy and Air Force would work together on aeromedical research.
Things took another turn in the early 2000s when aircrew flying F/A-18s and T-45s began reporting physiological episodes with symptoms ranging from headaches to dizziness both during and after flight. Around 2010, the Navy Safety Center started documenting all these events when it became obvious aviation that needed a clearer understanding of what was causing the wide array of issues pilots were experiencing. The issue ultimately rose to naval aviation’s number one safety priority in 2017, and the Physiologic Episode Action Team (PEAT) came to life.
“Here we realized we needed to get back into aeromedical research to protect our aircrew. “It was a direct result of the PEAT’s activities,” said Cmdr. Doubrava. “They recommended that the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) expand their in-house aeromedical expertise, and that helped drive the aeromedical team’s expansion and engineering partnership here today.”
The underlining point to NAWCAD’s partnership is how research will answer questions for the fleet to get the mission done. Doubrava says it’s not how well can this lab do this job, but how well can this lab support the idea of increasing lethality of our operators and improving the survivability of the aircraft in various environments.
“Much of NAWCAD’s research and development strives to prevent an aviation mishap,” said Doubrava. “But when we can’t, we want to make it survivable.”
Lt. Travis Doggett, research physiologist and biomedical consultant, said the partnership between Navy medicine and the civilian engineers is important because it bridges a direct line from the fleet to the labs where engineers get a taste of what Sailors are going through.
“As medically trained officers with fleet experience working directly with operators, we’re able to bridge that expertise from a medical point-of-view to the engineers developing technology,” said Doggett.
“We provide vital biomedical guidance to assist in their research and development of new or existing equipment advising whether it will be healthy to the aviator and aircrew. Will this system increase pain or other bodily problems? Applying our combined fleet experience and medical education to research, development, test, and evaluation of aircrew equipment helps NAWCAD achieve a better product, thus increasing survivability, lethality, and performance of the human operator.”
Lt. Cmdr. Micah Kinney, an optometrist and vision scientist, said the partnership is monumental because it brings a broader perspective and louder voice from the fleet. When a service member has an issue with a piece of equipment and they voice it to NAWCAD, it can be tested it in a lab, improved, and sent it out to the field.
“Laser eye protection, night vision systems, and more compatible prescriptive eyewear is something we want to have readily available for aircrew when the need is there or a threat exists,” Kinney said.
“In the fast-paced aviation environment, our aircrew need to have the best vision possible and not delay a decision in flight because they couldn’t see. Or, for example, if prescription eyewear interferes with noise cancelling headphones, we need to address that as a whole system. These are the outcomes we are working for here.”
Lt. Cmdr. Kyle Shepard, an operational audiologist and researcher, discussed the importance of the aeromedical team’s focus on prevention of physiologic events and injury.
“Shifting from a reactive model of care to a proactive, preventive one is how we as a military can continue to improve,” said Shepard.
“We are good at managing and treating injuries after they happen, however, we make a real impact by preventing mishaps in the first place. Noise-induced damage accounts for the #1 and #2 injuries in the military every year – tinnitus and hearing loss respectively – and many of these injuries are avoidable. Balancing effective protection while maintaining function for the warfighter is not a one-sized fits all solution. Environments are complex and the ability to communicate in these environments is paramount. Our goal is to enhance communication and adequately protect individuals while considering their specific tasks within diverse environments.”
Whether NAWCAD is developing new equipment, or improving what’s already in the military’s toolbox – like uncomfortable aircraft seats, weighty suits or how tightly a cranial fits on a person’s head – the warfare center aims to improve function, increase safety, and prevent injury for everyone on the flight line.
The joint military and civilian team is listening – all you have to do is let them know.
“When fleet data comes back to us, we are put in the position to influence the acquisition of the next generation of equipment to prevent these problems,” said Doubrava.
“Action reports and physiological representatives at the Navy Safety Center are a few ways we find out these problems. We encourage aircrew to let us know so we can gain insight, and ultimately save lives.”
NAWCAD advances capability and operational readiness for Naval Aviation and our warfighters. The warfare center is where naval aviation takes flight through research, development, test, evaluation, and sustainment of both fielded and not-yet fielded naval platforms and technologies that ensure America’s Sailors and Marines always go into conflict with significant advantage.
With sites in Patuxent River, Maryland, Lakehurst, New Jersey, and Orlando, Florida, the command is the Navy’s largest warfare center with a diverse force of military, civilians, and contractors building the Navy of today, the Navy of tomorrow, and the Navy after next.