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F16 Pilots

Running and Flying

Published August 25, 2003 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

When Lockheed Martin engineers built the F-16 fighter plane in the late seventies, they located the center of thrust of the engine away from the center of gravity of the aircraft. This design resulted in a statically unstable machine with an extreme dynamic range of motion. While providing air superiority, this unmatched maneuverability subjected F-16 pilots to forces up to nine times that of gravity.

Under 9-G forces, blood drains from the brain towards the feet, causing gravity-induced loss of consciousness in a couple of seconds. Pneumatic anti-G suits tightly wrap a pilot.s thighs and abdomen, and pump air at the onset of high G forces to squeeze them hard. By preventing blood from flowing towards the feet, anti-G suits keep a pilot alert during maneuvers.

However, air pumps for anti-G suits did not react fast enough for the F-16, and several planes and pilots were lost in the early eighties. The Air Force quickly commissioned a study to determine how people react to high G forces. They sat subjects in a pressure chamber, and increased the G-forces until the onset of tunnel vision, a precursor to blackout.

The study found that distance runners blacked out sooner than other groups, due to their lower blood pressure and heart rate. Weightlifters and bodybuilders, even smokers, fared better than runners, since their clogged arteries slowed down the rush of blood away from the brain.

As a result of the study, the Air Force equipped its bases with weight rooms and nautilus equipment to buff-up pilots, and ordered F-16 crews to quit running, or cut back to no more than 10 miles per week. Sadly, the study failed to consider a pilot.s ability to voluntarily tighten thigh and abdomen muscles prior to high-G maneuvers, and assist the anti-G suit in keeping blood in the brain. In the process, many outstanding post-collegiate distance runners missed out on the best training years of their lives.

Time proved the faulty premise of the G study. The advent of newer anti-G suits brought about a loosening of restrictions against running. Operation Desert Storm finally vindicated running. As the demands of several dog fights a day took a toll on the pilots, distance runners and endurance athletes fared the best. Their ability to squeeze leg and abdomen muscles time after time provided them a vital advantage over smokers and body-builders.

As runners lined up at the start of the 2003 Utica Boilermaker, half-a-dozen retired F-16 pilots wearing Syracuse 174th Wing T-shirts waited for the gun. They ran the race free of running quotas and anti-G suits, and finished ahead of thousands of all-comers.

© 2003 The Post-Standard.

Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. Dr.J. created TrackMeets.com, webcasting live Every Lap of Every Race. He receives email at jabbour@i2sports.com.

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