FORT RUCKER, Ala. – In 1962, shortly after rotary-wing aviation training was moved from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to Camp Rucker, and the Howze Board showed support for the use of rotary-wing aircraft in combat following its proven superiority in the harsh terrain of the Korean War, the commander of Lyster Army Hospital, Col. Spurgeon Neel, recognized that with the expansion of rotary-wing aviation, special medical support would be needed for its force.
Neel proposed that an Army unit be dedicated to researching solutions for medical issues faced in rotary-wing flight. The idea, supported by Gen. Earnest Easterbook, commander of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence, birthed the United States Army Aeromedical Research Unit.
According to Tony Waterman, USAARL librarian, “the USAARU was officially established by General Order Number 39, dated 6 July 1962 from Headquarters, Department of the Army under the jurisdiction of the surgeon general, at the United States Army Aviation Center, Fort Rucker, Alabama.”
After the establishment of the Research Unit, the Army underwent major changes with regard to rotary-wing aviation. The Johnson-McConnell Agreement of 1966 allowed the Army to equip rotary-wing aircraft with weapons, and to develop doctrine and tactics for use with rotary-wing aircraft in combat.
The establishment of the Johnson-McConnell Agreement lent credibility to Neel’s idea that rotary-wing aviation was here-to-stay, and that the pilots needed specialized medical support to protect them from altitude, climate, noise, acceleration, impact and innumerable other stressors.
“The USAARU began, in an effort to provide direct support to rotary-wing aviation units, answering specific questions identified through force touchpoints, as well as to develop a technical library dedicated to aeromedical factors,” Waterman said.
In 1969, the Unit was re-designated as the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory. About 10 years later, ground was broken at the site of a new, state-of-the-art facility, which was completed in 1981. The new USAARL facility supported countless advancements in Army rotary-wing aviation.
“Since that time, the USAARL has unceasingly worked to keep servicemembers safe, from not only environmental threats, but threats posed by our own equipment and systems,” noted Waterman. “The goal of the USAARL is to enhance the safety and performance of aviation and ground warriors alike, and we have done so in myriad different ways.”
Some of the Laboratory’s notable achievements include the following.
· Establishing the Aviation Life Support Equipment Retrieval Program in 1973 to investigate systems and equipment involved in mishaps.
· Developing the Helicopter in-flight Monitoring System, which was designed, built and installed on the Laboratory’s first research helicopter, a JUH-1H (Huey), in 1979. This advancement allowed researchers to measure pilot and helicopter performance for the first time in history.
· Developing crushable earcups for the Army’s rotary-wing flight helmet to prevent skull fractures in 1983.
· Testing and fielding the Communications Ear Plug in 1995. Hundreds of thousands of these ear plugs are currently in service today.
· Publishing the Crew Endurance Leader’s Guide in collaboration with the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1996.
· Developing spatial disorientation training profiles that were incorporated into instructor pilot training to give aviators the experience needed to avoid mishaps that could result from SD in 1999.
· Developing the International Standard 2631, which established the limits for human exposure to mechanical vibration and shock in 2004.
· Developing the Noise Immune Stethoscope in 2006, which made possible for the first time, heart and breath sounds to be heard in high-noise environments, such as in a helicopter during medical evacuations. Also in 2006, researchers from the USAARL developed the Facial and Ocular CountermeasUre for Safety – FOCUS – headform to test and evaluate the performance of eye and face protection equipment.
· Hosting its first Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science in 2011, a summer science, technology, engineering and mathematics education program for fourth through 11th graders sponsored by the Army Education Outreach Program. The program has grown over the years from just over 50 students in its first year to almost 300 students in 2022.
· In 2017, producing the Return-to-Duty Toolkit, an assessment guide for medical providers evaluating whether a Soldier is ready to return to duty following mild traumatic brain injury.
· Developing guidance incorporated into the Army Public Health Hazard Assessment Program and guide in 2020, setting limits on the weight of items attached to Soldiers’ helmets. Also in 2020, the USAARL responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by testing the effects of mask use on helicopter pilots during flight and testing the use of patient isolation units used for COVID-19 patients in medical evacuations.
· In 2021, supporting the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence by testing the effectiveness of a virtual reality component incorporated into rotary-wing flight training and hosting the first ever Human as the Center of Gravity meeting, which brought together top tier researchers from across the Department of Defense to discuss human performance issues impacting aviators and Soldiers.
Achievements that cannot be captured in a consolidated list such as the one above include the number of lives saved by a USAARL-tested seat restraint or helmet, the number of Soldiers who returned to duty after suffering an mTBI by completing assessments validated by the USAARL, the number of aviators and ground warriors alike who have worn a helmet or helmet component engineered and tested at the USAARL, or the number of Soldiers who were saved by equipment certified for airworthiness by the USAARL on a MEDEVAC helicopter.
As Col. Michael Tarpey, USAARL commander, put it in his speech at a Dec. 9 ceremony to celebrate the achievements of its staff on the laboratory’s 60th anniversary, “it is unlikely that any USAARL researcher has ever been thanked by a Soldier that had been indirectly saved by their work. Scientists at USAARL often work behind the scenes, their work going unrecognized by those they’ve touched.”
Regardless of the recognition received by USAARL’s researchers, they are a force to be reckoned with, all with the same goal and mission in mind. That mission is to serve the warfighter, one that they will undoubtedly continue for many years to come.
Brig. Gen. Tony McQueen, U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command commander, attended and spoke at the ceremony celebrating the USAARL’s 60 years of RDT&E.
McQueen emphasized the work that USAARL researchers are doing to support the development of wearable sensors in combat and commended the laboratory on their accomplishments over the past year, particularly STEM outreach activities and hosting the first-ever panel dedicated to injury biomechanics at the Military Health System Research Symposium.
McQueen said, “For 60 years, USAARL research and development has enhanced performance and saved lives. Throughout this time, it is easy to see the unique capabilities as the only rotary-wing aeromedical lab in the DOD. In the next chapter, I am confident that USAARL’s vital role will be unparalleled.”
At the ceremony, retired Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum also spoke about her time as a young researcher at the lab back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Cornum reminisced about the things she learned in her early career at USAARL. Cornum commented that while she was a researcher at USAARL, “the value of the work we [SIC] were doing was not measured by the number of publications; rather, the value was measured by the number of lives saved.”
USAARL is a world-class organization of subject matter experts in the fields of operator health and performance in complex systems; the en route care environment; blunt, blast, and accelerative injury and protection; crew survival in rotary-wing aircraft and combat vehicles; and sensory performance, injury, and protection. USAARL engages in innovative research, development, test and evaluation activities to identify research gaps and inform requirements documents that contribute to future vertical lift, medical, aviation, and defense health capabilities. USAARL is a trusted agent for stakeholders, providing evidence-based solutions and operational practices that protect joint force warriors and enhance warfighter performance. USAARL invests in the next generation of scientists and engineers, research technicians, program managers, and administrative professionals by valuing and developing its people, implementing talent management principles, and engaging in educational outreach opportunities.