In 2011, a devastating fatal crash by pilot Jon Egging, brought the incapacitating effects of G-force into public consciousness.
Flight lieutenant Egging, an experienced Red Arrows pilot flying as part of the RAF’s aerobatic team at Bournemouth Air Festival, crashed into a field following a display. The subsequent inquest found he may have suffered ‘almost loss of consciousness’, known as A-LOC, because of the high acceleration (G) forces he experienced. This meant he had a temporary incapacitation, which caused him to lose control of his aircraft.
This tragic event brought home the seriousness of the immediate effects of experiencing high G-forces. In 2017 a survey conducted by King’s and the Royal Air Force Centre of Aviation Medicine found 14.8% of those aircrew surveyed reported at least one episode of the more-severe G-induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC) and 32.2% reported at least one episode of A-LOC. In addition to loss of consciousness long term repeated exposure to high-G can lead to serious neck pain and injury
Researchers at the Centre for Human & Applied Physiological Sciences at King’s, in close partnership with the RAF Centre of Aviation Medicine, and Squadron Leader Ellen Slungaard, designed an innovative and novel Aircrew Conditioning Programme (ACP) to target the specific needs of aircrew.
The programme sought to improve the strength of multiple muscle groups throughout the body. It targeted the leg and abdominal muscles to help improve how pilots perform the anti-G straining manoeuvrer, a technique used by pilots to be able to tolerate higher G-forces. The head and neck muscles are strengthened to reduce the risk of neck injury from acceleration. The programme also targeted aerobic fitness and flexibility, as well as motor control of the neck and upper torso. Such a structured conditioning programme did not exist for aircrew within the RAF.
The ACP was tested in a 12-week controlled trial which determined how it influenced different aspects of G-tolerance in 36 serving RAF and Royal Navy air crew. The study found the ACP could reduce the physiological strain associated with G-force and improved the ability to tolerate repeated Gz exposure.
This trial was essential as prior research had found conflicting information about whether physical conditioning could enhance or worsen G-tolerance.
As a result of this work, the ACP was introduced as policy by the RAF in 2017 as an essential part of training.
Dr Ross Pollock, Lecturer in Aerospace Physiology said: “Not only has this research directly supported and improved the performance of our aircrew it has now also been taken up by the Army and the Royal Navy to benefit all our Services. The global reach of the research has also been highlighted by the ACP being adopted by some of our international allies. This work reinforces the importance of the real-world application of research and the benefits that can stem form academia collaborating with industry, Government and military to enable translational research.”