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Monday, April 21

Physical therapists dispense relief to aching fliers

By Gordon Trowbridge | Air Force Times

FROM A FORWARD AIR BASE, Persian Gulf region - Air Force Maj. Laura Fields has one of the toughest jobs in the military: straightening out fighter pilots. Or more precisely, their spines - along with joints and muscles that take a beating in modern jet cockpits.

Fields, a physical therapist with the 332nd Air Expeditionary Medical Group, and her two assistants are pioneering what could be called combat physical therapy. And they believe their approach is the most aggressive ever pursued at a forward fighter base.

Instead of waiting for pilots to come to them, Fields' team is making house calls, walking a regular beat of squadron rooms, seeking out pilots with aches and pains and practicing preventive medicine.

``They're working 12-hour shifts or longer, flying sortie after sortie,'' Fields said of the pilots. And when they're not flying, they getting much-needed sleep.

``We need to go to them,'' Fields said.

Her team is in demand. On a recent evening tour through Marine Corps squadrons here, pilots lined up like kids for ice cream. Airman 1st Class Amy Rodriguez, Fields' top assistant, said the idea for the treatments came from a pilot.

``He'd been coming to us for treatment, and I saw him at the chow hall one day,'' Rodriguez said. ``He said, `Hey, do you guys make house calls?' and it just clicked.''

And so the AV-8 Harrier and F/A-18 Hornet crews line up, waiting for their 10 minutes on the mat. Fields or Rodriguez lay the men and women down on their backs and work them through a series of stretches. The treatment is a relief, said Marine Lt. Col. Steve Waugh, a Harrier pilot who describes a fighter cockpit as something near to a torture chamber.

``Go to the most uncomfortable chair in your house,'' he said. ``Sit down and strap yourself in so tight that you can't slip your hand between your body and the straps. That's what the cockpit's like.''

Pilots also wear as much as 100 pounds of equipment, punishing back muscles. Helmets and night-vision goggles strain necks and backs. G-forces add to the strain.

Fields said Harrier pilots are especially vulnerable. Most like to set their seats high for a better view of the ground during vertical takeoffs and landings. That means they must scrunch down to see the display they monitor while flying. The unnatural position, known as ``the Harrier hunch,'' leads to constant aches in the neck, back and shoulders.

Fields said she hopes her team's work continues long after the war. She is collecting data on injuries and pains suffered by fliers and hopes to publish a technical paper identifying the sources of injuries. The data, she said, could point to needed improvements in cockpit design.