LAUGHLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
Walking into the main lobby of the aerospace physiology building and seeing the chamber for the first time, I didn't know what to expect. But thinking this is the first place future pilots come to start their training, I was excited to get a chance to experience a taste of their world.
As I made my way to the classroom for instructions, I met with others taking the class. Ranging from active Air Force and Army to Guard and Reserve, all of us took our seats in the classroom as we prepared for our series of lectures.
As the instructor, Capt. Ally Bergman, 47th Operation Support Squadron aerospace physiology flight commander, launched the PowerPoint application, all our hearts sank as we accepted the tribulations that today would be death by PowerPoint.
A few minutes into the class, Bergman began supplementing the facts with her own stories and personal experiences. Animated, she made dense blocks of instruction come to life. She told us what hypoxia is and its numerous symptoms while demonstrating its physical and mental effects. She also showed us what to do if you’re ever unfortunate enough to experience oxygen deprivation during a flight.
Almost every form of instruction had us participating, from sitting in a dark room trying to identify pictures on the screen, to spinning in the Barany Chair. Contrary to my expectations, learning about the effects of flying and what it can do to the body kept us riveted and invested in this life-saving class.
After we received all the information we needed. We grabbed all our gear and headed to the cold, brightly lit chamber with connections to an air hose hanging from the ceiling. Near every station was a console to control your air levels. Under every seat was a small yellow cylinder containing air for emergency. We plugged in all the different air connection and communication cords into the consoles to make sure we had oxygen, and performed a comm check. Hearing all the muffled voices over comms was jarring and you quickly learn you have to talk slowly and really enunciate your words.
The aerospace physiology team members checked us thoroughly to ensure we were all properly connected and safe before we began our “ascension.”
As the altitude started to rise, we hit a high enough level, the instructors' voices came over the communications' system, telling us to remove our masks and to begin working out a worksheet that included math problems and a maze. We did so, and followed further instructions to also checkoff symptoms of hypoxia we began to feel.
Doing the worksheet wasn't a problem--we all seemed to finish it. But then the instructor team told us to count by different intervals. It might not seem difficult to count by fours but once you sit in the chamber long enough and can't get enough oxygen, it becomes quite the challenge.
My answers grew further and further apart to the point I couldn't tell you what five more than a hundred and five was. I felt light-headed and nauseous trying to think of what it could be. Dizzily, I pushed all three of my switches and quickly cupped my oxygen mask back up to my face to breathe again. Within a matter of seconds I felt better. I watched the rest of my classmates try to keep counting before succumbing to the need for oxygen.
After we went back to ground level and departed the chamber I reflected that this is the first step to becoming a pilot and how every student has to pass this training in order to fly.
The instructor team did an amazing job imprinting so much life-assuring knowledge and training, so I can know how to react if something ever goes amiss in the skies. It was great to follow the same course as the world’s greatest aviators and to experience the baby steps of pilot training. At the same time, I got to meet a diverse array of Airmen and Soldiers. Getting the chance to go through this tremendous experience was eye-opening to be a part of the first steps that the future pilots have to undergo in order to fly in the world's most lethal and deadly Air Force.