The world’s most advanced centrifuge is scheduled to launch operations late this year, an event that promises to stamp Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as the center of gravity for aerospace medical research in the military.
“This is definitely the most state-of-the-art, advanced centrifuge in the world,” said Scott Fleming, centrifuge program manager for the 711th Human Performance Wing at the Air Force Research Laboratory.
Years behind schedule, the $34.4 million centrifuge will test the limits of thousands of military pilots over the next several decades.
This news organization was given an exclusive look at the project, which is the only one set to operate within the Department of Defense.
With an egg-shaped capsule on the end of a 31-foot long spinning arm, the giant centrifuge will push Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps pilots to learn how to endure gravity forces up to nine times a human’s body weight.
The centrifuge, four new research altitude chambers and a recently commissioned Navy disorientation research device – all within walking distance — are part of a $92 million array of projects authorities say will designate Wright-Patterson as the hub for research in aerospace physiology.
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All three projects were built at Wright-Patt to consolidate aeromedical research for the Air Force and Navy in one place. The consolidation followed the 2005 base closure process, which moved operations to the Ohio base from San Antonio, Texas and Pensacola, Fla.
Pushing the limit
The Air Force estimates that each year 1,000 or more fighter pilots, air crew, flight surgeons, aerospace physiologists and others will ride the centrifuge inside the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine.
Another 400 Navy and Marine Corps aviators will test their limits to g-tolerance on a shared time schedule with the Air Force, according to the Navy.
“This is a very extreme environment,” Fleming said. “The primary function of this is to teach pilots the anti-G-straining maneuver in order to keep blood flowing in their body, specifically up to their brain, to keep them from … passing out.”
Senior Airman Luciano Cattaneo has ridden inside the spinning device as a kind of test pilot for the project.
“It’s definitely painful,” said Cattaneo, 24, of Miami, Fla., and an aerospace and physiology technician at Wright-Patterson. “It’s very difficult to breathe just because when you are top of Gs, you literally feel like (you have) a gorilla sitting on your chest.”
The rider inside the capsule, or gondola, sits in an interchangeable cockpit, resembling an F-22 or F-35 or another plane.
The operator inside controls the pitch or roll of the capsule with a control stick – just like in a fighter jet. They look into a monitor that gives a virtual simulation of the sky.
“The whole cockpit configuration is completely realistic,” Cattaneo said. “This is essentially what you would see on an actual jet.”
The Air Force says it’s safer to train air crews to withstand the crushing forces of gravity in a centrifuge instead of doing that training in multi-million dollar fighter jets.
Spatial disorientation causes about 20 percent of aerial mishaps that result in either a fatality or more than $2 million in damage, said Col. James M. Cantrell, chief of the aerospace physiology division of the 711th Human Performance Wing.
The Navy’s disorientation research device is one-of-a-kind technology that is also designed to research spatial disorientation in pilots, as well as motion sickness in sailors. The device houses a 270,000-pound moving part with a capsule that spins, gyrates and moves back and forth along a spinning, horizontal track.
The centrifuge has the bone-crushing capacity to push from zero to 15 times the force of gravity in one second.
“The great challenge is as our aircraft have become more and more complex, they’ve gotten more and more capable,” said Col. William Mosle, the Human Systems Division chief at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center. “It’s the interface between the human and the machine that is the challenge.
“The ability to have this kind of research capability — to be able to look at how much information a human being can take in while they are under the physiological strains and trying to actually complete a mission task — has never actually existed before at this level.”