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Air Force looks at faster, smarter hardware acquisition and big data to help solve T-6 OBOGS issues

  • Published
  • By Dan Hawkins
  • Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs

Nineteenth Air Force hosted a forum of experts from both in and outside the Department of Defense as part of the on-going process to improve the safety of the T-6 On-Board Oxygen Generating Systems during a conference May 29-30 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.

While many of the OBOGS issues are markedly better than last year, the Air Force is looking at ways to procure hardware upgrades like the enhanced OBOGS faster and smarter, increase basic science and research and collect and apply new research data into acquisitions standards in order to properly address the broader issue of physiological events that cuts across all manned aviation.

“The team made good progress and consolidated a recognition across many functional areas how much we know and don’t know about OBOGS and the surrounding human-machine interaction of our aviators,” said Maj. Gen. Patrick Doherty, 19th AF commander. “I fully support the continued priority and resourcing to ensure our aircrew are the top priority of weapon system development in the future.”

In the near term, prioritizing and studying oxygen-generating system designs that seem to be resistant and immune to oxygen concentration, flow and pressure oscillations which appear to be producing these particular physiological events makes sense, Doherty said.

“We’ll be asking our acquisition and requirements professionals to lean toward the ‘best of breed’ system designs to ensure our aircrew are as safe as possible,” Doherty said.

During the week, machine and human aspects of the problem were discussed, as well as the human-machine interface where solutions have expanded significantly, but the pace of acquiring the technology isn’t currently keeping up, said Brig. Gen. Edward L. Vaughan, physiological episodes action team lead.

“Addressing the human-machine-environment interface is really about enhancing readiness, lethality, and Airpower,” Vaughan said. “OBOGS is one part of that interface. However, as an Air Force, we need more data and more options for rapid acquisition of solutions to ensure success.”

Finding human-machine interfaces like air crew breathing systems, as well as physiologic sustainment and augmentation designs that facilitate physiological adaptation between the pilot and the airframe is another focus area.

“We must research and develop the human-machine interface, as well as the mechanical engineering aspects traditionally thought of when designing these types of platforms,” said Col. Lidia Stana Ilcus, a physician and Air Education and Training Command Aerospace Medicine division chief. “Hypersonic and space priorities will still, at their core, incorporate human pilots and air crew. We have to break the habit of asking the human being to adapt to the iron.”

Specific to acquisitions, while a military standard that outlines the minimum design, integration, certification and sustainment and maintenance requirements for aircraft crew breathing systems using an OBOGS to ensure their safety and effectiveness exists, there is still work to be done in acquiring technology.

“As a community, we’ve learned so much so fast over the four years since that standard was published that we need to update it right away,” Vaughan said. “For example, we have seen tremendous advances in human sensor technology that could help us better understand the human in and on the loop for manned aviation, but we are still working through the frustration in the process of defining requirements and initiating acquisitions.”

One of the big takeaways from the conference was in terms of the need for more current and diverse data.

“We learned that much of the aerospace physiology data and related specifications, for all the services, are outdated by decades and based on sample pools of primarily men,” Vaughan said. “That data worked fine for older, less complex aircraft that are sustained by (Air Force) processes, but for high-tech systems and commercially sustained programs like the T-6, new and better data is required.”

New ground has been broken in the art and science of human systems as well.

“There are some amazing insights from the medical researchers at Case Western Reserve and NASA’s Pilot Breathing Assessment,” Vaughan said. “We have many learning points to consider and will release specific findings and related design updates in the near future.”

Moving forward, the lessons learned will also need to be applied to future platforms.

“We are especially keen to ensure the new learning and data about OBOGS are applied to new acquisitions like the T-X,” Vaughan said.

Collaboration across multiple agencies has been extremely valuable in working towards solutions, with representatives from the Air Force including the AF-PEAT, Air Force A3T, Air Force Surgeon General, 19th AF and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, as well as the Human Systems Engineering Special Program Office, the U.S. Navy, NASA, industry and academia in attendance.

“Our partners in the U.S. Navy, NASA, academia and industry are a huge part of the solution sets, and together, we are collaborating better now than ever before on this issue that requires commitment at the highest levels of leadership to solve,” Doherty said.