Behind the COVID-19 mask: Army Aviation, medicine sciences find cockpit training solutions

By Kelly MorrisJune 23, 2020

Behind the COVID mask
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – CPT Lance Randles, aeromedical evacuation officer serving as a research pilot at the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, tests masks for use in flight school training during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
Behind the COVID-19 mask
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – With clipboard in hand, LTC Kara Cave, auditory human factors researcher and clinician at the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, preps the team for mask testing early in the local response to COVID-19, before masks and social distancing were implemented.
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo)

There’s a point on Fort Rucker where the sciences of Aviation and medicine met back in March--the point of need.

With no precedent or warning order, a global pandemic became the focus at the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory in early 2020, as suddenly the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence needed special equipment just to go about its routine training in aircraft and simulators.

But the Army’s greatest asset, its people, are trained to adapt to and fight in whatever conditions they find themselves; and COVID-19 was no exception.

Lt. Col. Kara M. Cave, deputy, Warfighter Performance Group at USAARL, who serves as an auditory human factors researcher and clinician, typically sees regular patients and generally has time on her side. With the novel coronavirus outbreak, and the need for immediate results, she used her expertise to help ensure Fort Rucker’s flight school could safely continue to train Aviation professionals.

“This is completely new territory,” Cave said.

The lab was called upon to respond to rapid questions about the use of masks—including about communication while wearing the mask, and whether there were any adverse effects on the aircrew.

“It’s actually a really exciting time to be involved with this, just because as a researcher you’re always looking for the perfect amount of control with the right amount of validity, or how much it actually applies to the real world, and with a short suspense like this you become very good at making decisions.

“I felt like that’s kind of where my training as a clinician took over. You have to have some really good decision making capabilities and a strong background in some of these measures to be able to make those snap judgments,” Cave said.

Cave reflected on her prior deployment experience, with its last-minute taskers, and also not knowing much about her patients until they walked through the door.

“It was also the only other time I’ve really spent a lot of time in an aircraft. That familiarity was really helpful, but I’m always learning new things about aircrew and aviation,” she said.

With a PhD in audiology, Cave was part of the USAARL team that tested mask options for aviators who could not observe social distancing while in cockpits and simulators, including the N95 respirator, cloth masks manufactured at Fort Rucker, and a commercial off the shelf solution they were able to test with the help of the 110th Aviation Brigade.

“That was helpful to have such a relevant and immediately accessible group of test participants,” Cave said.

The USAARL quickly tested and submitted results, and the fruits of their labor under pressure can be seen across social media platforms in the photos of aviation professionals completing their mission while wearing masks.

For Cave, it’s about ensuring safety and people’s confidence in the equipment.

“If somebody doesn’t think that the equipment’s going to perform well, for example if I put this mask on and someone isn’t going to be able to hear me, they aren’t going to want to comply with that requirement. This gives that end user a little more confidence in the equipment, that it’s OK to use and improves infection control,” Cave said.

For Cpt. Lance W. Randles, a Black Hawk pilot who serves as an aeromedical evacuation officer, responding quickly when the phone rings is just part of the first-responder nature of the MEDEVAC mission. As a research pilot at USAARL, where he contributes his knowledge of aviation and MEDEVAC, the goal is to optimize human performance and ultimately protect the warfighter.

When the Surgeon General issued guidance for Army aircrews back in March, in the event they would transport any COVID-19 patients, the memo dictated wearing of the N95 mask and other PPE.

“That’s where we at USAARL were able to raise our hand and be further tasked to determine if speech intelligibility was affected, if the mask in a crash sequence would be safe to wear, is it fire retardant, is it increasing aviator workload…. So these are questions we now have to answer,” Randles said.

They needed results quickly.

“At that point it really takes an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Randles said. “So we take our HH-60M, a Black Hawk that’s suited for the MEDEVAC mission, and we’re doing this type of N95 testing. So we’re strapping it on, we’ve got our data collectors in the back, our researchers, our scientists, and we’re taking measurements in order to effectively write a test plan and submit those results.”

“Within flight systems we’re all qualified instructor pilots, so we have the ability to test equipment that may inhibit the performance of my copilot, so if something were to happen I have the ability to control the aircraft in somewhat of a higher risk environment,” he explained.

Their efforts directly impacted the USAACE training mission.

“From a scientific standpoint we’ve given real data, we’ve given real test plans, and we’ve submitted all that information for a decision to be made that, yeah, we can perform the mission and here are the restrictions, here is the risk that’s accepted,” he said.

Randles said he is proud of the fast turnaround time in getting a solution so the crews could protect themselves by wearing cloth masks.

“Part of that, if not the majority of that, is from our work here at USAARL to allow them to continue to train and still abide by the current guidance,” he said.

Randles said being part of the USAARL team has been humbling and rewarding.

“Here I am looking at doctors and scientists with more letters in their name than in mine, and I understand immediately that they’re on a completely different level than myself,” Randles said. “At the same time I’m getting questions from them such as, ‘hey, what does the aircraft do, what are the basic flight profiles’, things that maybe a flight school student is either learning or doesn’t know yet.”

As a MEDEVAC pilot, Randles described himself as the “Uber driver,” and whereas he normally has a crew chief and medic in the back, now there are researchers behind him.

“I’m just responsible for controlling the aircraft and working with them and giving them my operational sense. So it really is that team effort that is rewarding here at USAARL knowing that we all rely on one another to perform the mission.”

And their mission goes well beyond COVID-19 and routine testing efforts.

“We’re also looking ahead at Future Vertical Lift, other Army modernization priorities… adding in our reports, adding in our studies, our experiments that will help make informed decisions on what the future warfighter looks like.”