A black box for pilots? From F-22s to jumbo jets, real-time info on pilots needed, Mayo experts say

Mayo Clinic | October 25, 2012

Estimated reading time 3 minutes, 44 seconds.

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic are calling for in-flight pilot monitoring after recent pilot issues with the physically demanding F-22 fighter jet brought the issue into the spotlight.

In a new paper published in the journal Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, the team said that common aeromedical problems, such as oxygen deprivation, spatial disorientation, fatigue and stress, aren’t assessed by standard tools, and aren’t in play during pre-flight physicals. They said the development of “a black box for pilots” could determine, in real time, whether they were fit to fly, helping to head off cognitive and physical failures that could take a jet down.

For example, as a pilot’s oxygen level drops, it can happen subtly, and the team said several planes have been lost after a pilot passed out or otherwise became unable to make the right decisions. Lawrence Steinkraus, M.D., a Mayo Clinic aerospace medicine physician who served on the panel, said that if something on board alerted the pilot to that developing hypoxia and directed him or her to take specific actions, it could prevent a crash.

Another common problem in fighter jets is gravitational-force-induced loss of consciousness, or G-LOC, Dr. Steinkraus says. There is a period of time before consciousness is lost when the pilot could be warned and told to intervene, or the aircraft could take action, if the right systems were in place, he said.

“Our argument is that the human being is the most important, the critical piece in aircraft performance, whether it’s a commercial airliner, whether it’s a fighter, you’re talking about the human being, the brain, the decision maker, being the one who drives it,” Dr. Steinkraus says. “If we have something go wrong with that central processing unit, we need to have some sort of backup or warning, and it would be wonderful if we could add that information flow back to the pilot.”

A change in philosophy in the aviation community is needed for monitoring to catch on, Dr. Steinkraus says. Fighter pilots and others have resisted the idea as “Big Brotherish” and potentially punitive, and effective systems also have been lacking, he says.

However, the F-22 problems have pilots, the military and aerospace medicine experts alike hungry for answers, Dr. Steinkraus says. That, combined with the growth of on-board tracking in some modes of transportation, such as the use of GPS by trucking companies to monitor truck drivers, and advances Mayo Clinic and others are making in the technology, may be turning the tide in favour of it, he says.

“Acceptance is a big deal, and the smaller and easier we can make this and the more reliable, the easier it’s going to be to get pushed out into the world and people will be willing to do it,” Dr. Steinkraus says. “When the first cell phones came out they looked like giant bricks, and now you look at them and everyone’s carrying them. It’s the same thing with monitoring units.”

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