By Tech. Sgt. Russ Scalf
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
The ramp of a C-130J is lowered into place, as a team of Airmen inch slowly toward the edge. A gust of cold air thrashes about the cargo area as four aerospace physiology Airmen depart the aircraft.
The Airmen free fall 16,000 feet toward the earth before deploying their parachutes, landing safely at the drop-zone. The success of this operation rests in part with a successful exit at 20,000 feet; an objective that could not be accomplished without the Airmen of Aerospace Physiology. The High Altitude Airdrop Mission Support team has completed another successful mission, accomplishing multiple training objectives in the process.
The HAAMS program is a vital asset of the 19th Medical Group, at Little Rock Air Force Base. Due to the nature of their mission, most of its members spend a great deal of time on the road each year. Rather than working at home station or within a clinical setting, they enable the mission by providing exceptional high altitude airdrop mission support to contingency operations through teamwork, excellence and innovation. As the only high altitude support mission in the Department of Defense, their duties take them to the farthest reaches of the globe, facilitating unpressurized airdrop missions above 20,000 feet for multiple government agencies.
HAAMS Airmen provide emergency response physiological care, as well as oxygen systems expertise to aircrew, parachutists and mission-essential personnel performing unpressurized operations. That care can range from the simple troubleshooting of a mask or changing out an oxygen bottle, to rigging an entire aircraft to support more than 60 high altitude-low opening and high altitude-high opening jumpers. On average, the HAAMS program supports over 125 taskings each year.
“HAAMS personnel are a rapidly deployable force, able to respond to any global DOD operation,” said Staff Sgt. Abel Pelayo, an aerospace physiology technician. “We can support any mission that requires unpressurized flight at or above 20,000 feet on any aircraft. This can be a test operation at Yuma, Arizona, a NASA test at Edwards Air Force Base, California, or special operations’ contingencies. Our customers are diverse in mission and capability, and it is our ability to integrate with anyone from a scientist to a shooter that makes us an effective force multiplier.”
The Airmen who comprise this program are among the finest in the aerospace physiology career field. Each member is selected through an application process to attend the HAAMS Formal Course, which is offered bi-annually at Little Rock Air Force Base. This three-week course is designed to prepare technicians to operate independently in the field and includes a two-week flying phase supported by the various squadrons locally.
“The course is a three-week intensive curriculum that covers over six months of material,” said Pelayo. “Our HAAMS course takes already experienced, highly motivated individuals and instills the capability and confidence required to integrate with the vast organizations we serve. Our students learn advanced oxygen equipment systems to sustain life at the extreme altitudes we work in and how to set up and manage these systems, regardless of aircraft type. We constantly test our candidates and present them with scenarios that force creative solutions.”
“At the core of our course is the human’s limit to altitude. We reintroduce students to altitude induced medical emergencies and how to effectively treat people in flight. By the end of the course our students have gone through 150 academic hours,” he said. “We try to simulate real world conditions as close as possible. By the time our students are done they possess a firm foundation on the application of operational physiology for HAAMS.”
The Airmen’s training does not end there. Students must demonstrate competencies on a minimum of three operational missions before they are considered for upgrade to mission-ready status; granting them full autonomy in the application of HAAMS.
One thing is evident; this is not your regular altitude chamber unit.