Whenever there is a conversation about fighter jets or bombers, the focus is always about capabilities, effectiveness, lethality and kinematics. How fast does the jet fly? How far can it go? How maneuverable is it? How much G can it sustain? Can it dogfight? How many missiles and bombs can it carry?…and so on. We naively assume that the outcome of any combat engagement will be based on the jet’s capabilities and ignore one critical variable…the human flying that jet.
Experts can measure every technical feature of each plane and calculate which one will win in a combat engagement. War-gaming pits swarms of us against each other, figuring in the lethality of our missiles and calculating who will win any given battle.
Yet we ignore the human. There is an expectation that each fighter pilot will be able to optimize, even maximize the lethality of their fighter, each time they fly. We have never measured how each individual man or woman will perform. We certainly have never measured the effectiveness of a 2-person crew, wondering how well the team would function in combat. Does the strong member make up for a poor performance of the other?
How effective is a $100M F-35 if the pilot is not physically at his peak? What is the capacity lost if the human cannot maintain focus over a long duration mission, especially one where the high intensity work happens many hours after takeoff? Is the human physically ready, sufficiently hydrated, physiologically sound and ready for aggressive combat? Are the cognitive skills honed and their minds completely focused on the task or are they distracted, brain-fogged and not nearly at their peak capability?
All the investment in the most sophisticated 5th Gen fighters will be for naught if the human in the cockpit is ’not there’. The overwhelming capability of an F-35 becomes significantly marginalized when the pilot flying it has been compromised physically and cognitively.
For decades upon decades, fighter pilots have cheated their bodies when flying by not hydrating to avoid the awkward task of having to pee while in the air.
The act of urinating is cumbersome and time consuming in a world where there is seldom any free time. Add layers of clothing and an immersion suit when flying over cold water or arctic flying gear in wintertime and the act of peeing becomes nearly impossible to manage. For women, there has never been an acceptable solution beyond wearing adult ‘diapers’ to use in the event that they need to urinate.
Many years ago, men used what was essentially condoms attached to a long hose that drained into a collection bag around their boots. Then the ‘piddle pack’ was introduced, essentially a plastic freezer bag with absorbent sponge or powder material, to soak up the liquid. Using a piddle pack requires that the aircrew safe their ejection seats (so that it cannot be fired off accidentally), unstrap from the seat, unzip through potentially layers of flight clothing and their seat harness, pee, then reverse the process to suit back up, strap back in and arm the ejection seat. All of that, awkward from start to finish, takes time, again which no one has when flying the aircraft. Pilots learned to avoid the need to pee using those piddle packs. Instead of preparing their bodies for the rigors of a hard mission with nutrition and hydration, pilots stop consuming liquids hours before the flight and ensure that they urinate as the last step before walking out to their aircraft to fly. In many documented cases, men and women have gone 7 or 8 hours without urinating, all while flying their jets in combat scenarios. I once had a foreign pilot in the rear cockpit of my 2-seat F-16 not relieve himself for more than 10 hours in a flight across the Atlantic Ocean from Texas to Spain; needless to say, he was not in good shape when we landed at the far end. Fumbling using piddle packs, unstrapping and getting harnesses caught in the flight controls of the aircraft has caused accidents in fighter aircraft. In one such case, an F-16 fighter was lost in March 1991 when the pilot unstrapped to use a piddle pack and his lap harness became lodged against the side stick of the jet, drove it out of control forcing the pilot to eject while the fighter crashed 300 feet from a civilian aircraft terminal in Palmdale, California.
The resulting effect of not hydrating over a long duration is called ‘Tactical Dehydration’ where the aircrew have starved their bodies of water, electrolytes and nutrients. What is the effect of Tactical Dehydration? 3% of the body dehydrated equates to a 50% reduction in one’s ability to withstand G forces. This would lead to a weaker body unable to handle the G forces of a dogfight leading to the pilot blacking out. More than a dozen accidents have been linked to tactical dehydration and G-induced loss of consciousness.
No commander ever imagined that the fighter pilots they were sending into combat were only 50% ready to handle the G forces of the jet they were expected to fight in. The enemy now does not have to match the capability of our fighters but instead only has to be as good as the weakened fighter pilot on our side. We have given the enemy an entry into our once dominant force by compromising ourselves.
We train so hard and dedicate enormous resources to our training…elaborate, progressive stages to perfect our flying and tactical skills of the men and women we prepare for war. Train like you fight…Fight like you Train.
Yet in spite of the best training in the most realistic environments, our forces are not optimized when we send them to fly their missions. All of that enormous expense and effort is now compromised because those men and women are not at peak capability. Their fear of having to pee and not wanting to use a piddle pack or worse, a diaper, has driven them to avoid drinking liquids for hours, starving their bodies and fogging their minds.
Think of the comparison during day-to-day life on the ground. We take water or Gatorade or other kinds of sports drinks when we hike mountains, workout in the gym, play hockey or soccer. Yet somehow, when we are flying $100M F-35s where our lives are at risk even in peacetime, forget actual combat, it is accepted institutionally to drain our body of the liquids and energy that we need to function at our best.
We have a 20th Century mindset flying 21st Century fighters.
The $100M F-35 is reduced to a 4th Gen legacy fighter because the human has been marginalized.
There are many elements of educating our aviators how to maintain peak cognitive skills and to ensure that they are physiologically and physically ready for long duration, high stress missions. The buy-in from that education does not happen overnight. There are very few studies that we can rely on to give scientific credence to our argument; we are left with anecdotes to prompt our fellow pilots to think, drink, eat and perform better. There is proactive thinking and the naissance of programs in the US Air Force to support aviators and a push for Optimized Human Performance. The days of pilots flying with pulled muscles in their backs or necks from earlier injuries during aggressive BFM missions are fading. Having physical trainers and support to help recover from injuries to get pilots back healthy and in the air has become a priority in some units.
And now there is technology to aid the pilot for in-flight bladder relief, called Skydrate. The 3rd generation of this technology, the pilot wears what is essentially a hockey cup (or baseball catcher cup) attached to a hose leading to a collection bag. In the cup and hose connection is a sensor that detects the saline content in the urine which automatically activates a pump to pull the liquid away from the body and deposit it in the collection bag. Years of aircrew inputs has led to pilot-vehicle interface improvements so that now there are simple switches for the aircrew to operate, fool-proof fitting of the system pieces and pump rates that would match the best third-year college student peeing after a night of heavy beer drinking. For women aviators, Skydrate has a system that fits under their anatomy, covers front to back and inflates a pad around the lower body, detects the urine while pulling the liquid away from the body into the collection bag and leaving no leaking of liquid once completed.
After many years of development, aircrew have a system that they can rely on when flying so as not to have to compromise proper nutrition and hydration. Flying with liquids to keep the bodies hydrated and with the nutrients needed is now manageable because the task of peeing has become simple and fool-proof. What is really critical is the elimination of the cheating of our bodies to avoid the unpleasant task that we had to manage previously. Skydrate is but one solution to the many elements of honing our men and women to perform at their peak while airborne; but it is a key element.
We need to think of fighter pilots as high-end athletes: ‘Tactical Athletes’.
Empower them to fly the most expensive and lethal aircraft in history and educate them not only how to be stone cold killers but how to train and maintain their minds and bodies to be at the peak conditions in the harshest of environments…combat.
Empower them to fly the most expensive and lethal aircraft in history and educate them not only how to be stone cold killers but how to train and maintain their minds and bodies to be at the peak conditions in the harshest of environments…combat. It is sad how we missed this element of training the pilot for all these years but fortunate to have caught on to this issue as we face the daunting task of the China threat and certainty of being out numbered in combat. Not only will our forces have to be overwhelming but our aircrew will have to perform at their peak. That means optimizing their cognitive skills, having their bodies hydrated, physically primed, ready and trained to the highest standards. Luckily, we have realized this weakness and can correct it with a relatively minor investment in trainers, equipment and technology. There is more to the education process but eliminating Tactical Dehydration is a good step in the right direction.