Special tactics airmen undergo 4-hour elite-athlete fitness test
A combat controller team from the 720th Special Tactics Group, Hurlburt Field, Fla., jumps from a C-130 H3 during a high-altitude jump over north eastern Niger, Feb. 28, 2014, during Joint Exercise Flintlock, an African-led, military exercise.
HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. — An airman hopped on the bike, wires running to a computer nearby, and started pedaling.
Within a few moments, the two researchers on either side took hold of the handlebars to steady it and told him to peddle as hard as he could for 30 seconds.
At first his legs sped around the gears, but then fatigue set in.
When Lt. Jerrod Moon, a member of the special tactics community at Hurlburt Field, finished, the computer made calculations: how powerful he was and how long he could keep that power going.
“At first, I thought, ‘30 seconds? How hard could that be?’ But, you can barely move your legs after about 15 seconds.’ ” he said.
Last summer, the University of Pittsburgh embarked on a $3 million, three-year study of the special tactics community at Hurlburt Field.
Researchers are applying state-of-the-art testing techniques usually reserved for elite and Olympic athletes to see whether they can determine what types of injuries special tactics airmen are susceptible to, how the injuries happen and what might be done to prevent them.
Five similar studies have been conducted with Army and Navy special operations.
“When you look at elite athletes, it’s obvious with the right training they do better, performance wise, with endurance and with the length of their careers,” said Col. Howard Givens, head surgeon for the 24th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt. “We are just seeing if we can apply that with the military.”
So far, Moon and about 80 other special tactics airmen have gone through the four-hour test at Hurlburt. That accounts for about a quarter of special tactics airmen, and they hope to reach many more.
The information gathered — including strength, endurance, flexibility, biomechanics and aerobic capacity — should eventually help the Air Force improve training to prevent injury and keep their airmen functioning in the field longer and better.
Special tactics airmen have a more physically demanding and high-risk job than most airmen, Givens said.
They jump out of planes regularly, are required to be able to move very quickly on the ground, lift a lot of weight over their heads and perform under dangerous conditions, often at night.
The tests try to focus in on those particular functions they need to be able to perform, said Meleesa Wohleber, the assistant professor overseeing the study at Hurlburt.
For another test, Moon, dotted with dozens of little, gray sensors, climbed on top of a stool in the center of the lab.
He was surrounded by equipment, the type used to create popular video games such as Call of Duty, Wohleber said.
A black screen on the wall showed Moon’s avatar: a stick figure made of a series of colorful lines representing his arms, legs, knees, shoulders.
Hanging his toes off the edge, he pushed himself forward into a “fall,” landing on two black force plates imbedded in the floor.
The test simulates how his body would react to landing after jumping out a plane.
Another test involves an at least 12-minute run at top speed on a treadmill to measure aerobic strength. Airmen run as long and as hard as they can.
In the middle of the test, adept researchers quickly grab blood samples to measure blood lactate levels.
The study could help improve airmen’s lives both while they are serving and after, said Senior Master Sgt. Kenneth Huhman, a special tactics airman who has gone through the tests.
Huhman, who was recently recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament tear, hopes more special tactics airmen will volunteer for it, especially since their field is so apt for injury.
“We don’t want to use a person and then put them out there and they are in a wheelchair or on crutches while they are playing with the grandchildren,” he said. “We want to give them a functional and full life after.”