Columbus provides better outlook on aircrew flight equipment
By Airman 1st Class Jake Jacobsen, 14th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
/ Published July 17, 2019
COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Maj. Saily Rodriguez, the Systems Program Office (SPO) female fitment program manager, and Maj. Christianne Opresko, HAF/A3 (Headquarters Air Force/Operations) chief aircrew support branch and chief of staff for the Air force Physiological Episodes Action Team, visited Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, July 11-12 to address some aircrew flight equipment concerns.
Col. Samantha Weeks, 14th Flying Training Wing commander invited Rodriguez and Opresko to fly in the trainer aircraft and experience what women deal with while airborne.
Weeks wanted to address this issue as she firsthand understands the issues of being a female flier and wants to obtain better solutions for the problems at hand. Namely the issue of bladder relief options for women has been the prioritized issue.
1st Lt. Christina Hall, the 14 Medical Operations Squadron aerospace and operational physiologist, organized the tour for Weeks and accompanied the two visitors while they were briefed on their incentive flights they would take on the T-38 Talon and the T-6 Texan II trainer aircraft.
Hall was formerly enlisted aircrew, spending six years attaining 2400 flight hours as a flight attendant. Hall has also flown in an F-16 Fighting Falcon and knows personally of the issues surrounding female bladder relief issues on fighter aircraft.
“What you have happening now to combat the big bladder relief issue is pilots purposely dehydrating themselves so they don’t have to use the bad bladder relief methods available,” said Hall. “Dehydration comes with a whole lot of issues, which becomes a safety hazard and the more female pilots we obtain the more pressing these issues become.”
Upon arriving, Rodriguez clarified that the issue with the bladder relief isn’t the devices themselves but rather to increase the options available to the aircrew members. She also mentioned that women pilots especially struggle as the options for them are incredibly limited.
Rodriguez said the reason she wanted to do these incentive flights was because she wanted to get a true appreciation for what female aircrew go through whenever they have to fly.
“As a program manager I don’t have the experience of flying, however, I manage the programs that are meant to enhance and maintain all aircrew flight equipment that pilots wear,” said Rodriguez. “I am doing these flights to get that perspective firsthand instead of getting told what the issue is.”
Prior to Columbus AFB Rodriguez went to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., where they do testing for future flight equipment, and flew an F-16 Fighting Falcon sortie to give her the full effect of what it is like to be an aircrew member inside the cockpit and execute different maneuvers under G’s. She took special care to understand the uniform, harness, urinary relief, and any kind of survival equipment that they use to see how it can affect the performance and posture of a pilot.
She wanted to come to Columbus AFB to see what the pilots experience when they have their first real exposure to the flying world. Being in the trainer aircraft, Rodriguez could acquire a better understanding of what women go through at the very beginning when they first come in as a pilot.
Rodriguez tried out a disposable urinary relief device called the Traveljohn while she was in the T-38.
She wanted to try out this device to get an appreciation for what women use while in flight to better understand what female pilots mean when they tell her about bladder relief issues.
Rodriguez tried not to unbuckle anything while she was in the T-38 to see how much room and how difficult it would be to perform bladder relief with the given circumstances and the device at hand. Ultimately, it was not feasible to use such a device while buckled in place.
“The aircrew have to unharness themselves in order to perform bladder relief in aircraft which poses a risk if the aircraft were in danger and they needed to eject while not properly harnessed,” said Rodriguez. “If pilots had more relief options to choose from they could test out what works better and use that particular method to fit their needs.”
Rodriguez recapped the issue of “tactical dehydration” with the pilots who find it difficult to use the current bladder relief systems available. She explained that multiple efforts need to be brought in to address the problem in order to give female aircrew different options to perform bladder relief.
The SPO are responsible for the research and development, test and evaluation, and management of these items. Rodriguez and Opresko plan to use the experience gained from CAFB to help connect back to the aircrew community and vector their programs to satisfy pilot’s needs.
“At the end of the day it is all about having form, fit and function to enable our aircrew to optimize their performance in the aircraft,” said Opresko. “Any issue we find is a barrier towards performance enhancement and optimization.”
Opresko has accompanied Rodriguez on her trip to enhance aircrew flight equipment and said they were able to talk to aircrew from different backgrounds such as the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II. Their goal was to find out what dissatisfactions they had with their specific aircraft equipment that they fly in and how they function while not having optimal gear.
“One platform is not the same as the other,” said Rodriguez. “Being able to see pilots sitting down inside their cockpits and letting them talk about how this fits or doesn’t fit allows me to fully grasp what’s going on and what needs to get fixed.”
Rodriguez talked to some female pilots who told her that they could only use one device for urinary relief while in the fighter jets because of the particular harness they use. This led her to put on the harness to experience their issues first hand and realized that there was something that physically blocked you from being able to use some relief devices.
Being able to see and feel the equipment being used in action gave Rodriguez a full perspective on how important it is to solve the issues to ensure the mission can be completed and pilots are not being slowed down by issues like bladder relief.
“We need to be able to take in considerations to improve the fit and feel for aircrew members so they can function to the level the Air Force is expecting them to perform to,” said Rodriguez.
The SPO is looking for outside sources to pitch in new bladder relief options as well as partnering with the U.S. Navy, putting money toward their bladder relief projects. Rodriguez claimed the Navy is working on new devices that could be beneficial to add to our existing products that are being used today. The SPO is looking at what is available commercially, what the sister services are doing, and improving what they already have to get the issue resolved.