Painful Chopper Rides: Maintaining Your “Optimal Buttocks Reference Point” Can Kill Your Back — Failure to Do So Can Kill You

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Helo missions, like this UH-60 Black Hawk over Afghanistan, are lasting so long that pilots are hurting / DoD photo by Micheal Fuemmeler

A decade of war certainly takes its toll on the brains and minds of those waging it. We’ve seen that in the numbers of troops returning with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Pentagon leaders refer to them as the “signature wounds” of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq because of their prevalence due to battlefields saturated with IEDs.

But there’s another war wound rarely discussed: the back and neck pain suffered by up to 90% of military helicopter pilots who have now been flying over Afghanistan and Iraq for nearly a decade. “In the worst cases, people have had to stop flying or go into surgery for fused spinal discs,” Dick Healing, a former Navy safety chief, recently told Stars and Stripes, the official newspaper of the U.S. military. Just like Mom warned you: poor posture can lead to such pain, not to mention the body armor and night-vision goggles military chopper pilots often have to wear. But the biggest challenge is the seats the pilots sit in.

Here’s the problem: designing a seat that’s comfortable conflicts with designing a seat that’s going to save your life if your chopper crashes (chopper pilots don’t wear parachutes). Both of those goals conflict with a key element of chopper design: keep weight to a minimum. Every piece of padding or comfort-giving gee-gaw added to the seat is one less bullet or pound of fuel it can carry. Riding in a military helicopter, with its relentless vibrations, becomes a skeletal-shaking buzz after awhile. Peacetime flights of 90 minutes have been replaced by combat missions lasting far longer.

“Rotary-wing operations in OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) often require six to 12 continuous hours of prolonged sitting by the aircrew,” an Army report noted last year. “With this increased exposure and resultant pain, aircrews are reporting decreased concentration and situational awareness. This leads to errors and/or premature mission termination and ultimately will adversely impact tactical and strategic objectives.”

Some improvements have been made. But despite studies that have been done time and time and time again, many pilots are still flying in pain. They’ve long yearned to use store-bought cushions, something the Army has warned against doing, in typical Army prose:

The crash-worthy seating system installed in today’s helicopters was designed and tested as a system. Each component of that system has a specific purpose, whether it is for crash attenuation, dynamic overshoot prevention, providing the optimal buttocks reference point, properly interfacing with the restraint system or to provide you with optimum visibility. Modifying the seating system without thorough testing can cost you your life during an otherwise survivable crash.

Alas, the 2007 safety warning noted, it has happened:

This article is based on an OH-58D(R) Class A accident where the pilot placed an aftermarket seat cushion on top of the original aircraft seat to make it more comfortable to fly. The pilot was fatally injured during the crash. Changing either the buttocks reference point or the energy absorption ratio of the cushion will lead to increased energy forces applied to the body during an accident. This can make an otherwise survivable accident deadly.

The problem has gotten so bad, Stripes reports, that many military pilots are seeking private medical care to ease their pain without alerting their commanders to their potentially career-ending aches. The military has surveyed its chopper pilots to glean new insights into the problem. It’s now studying the wisdom of using new technologies, including NASCAR-like molded seats, to maintain the crash-worthiness of chopper seats while making their everyday use more comfortable.