An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Squadron health initiative ensures fighter pilots are fit to fight tonight, tomorrow

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Suzie Plotnikov
  • 8th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

The Air Force’s mission statement is to Fly, Fight, and Win…Airpower Anytime, Anywhere.

Pilots need to be at the top of their game and in peak physical health to dominate in aerial warfare for the world’s greatest Air Force.

To meet these standards, the 8th Operations Group hired athletic trainers and a licensed massage therapist to establish a program known as ‘Optimizing the Human Weapon System,’ or OHWS. Located within the 35th and 80th Fighter Squadrons, the program reduces the frequency and severity of neck and back injuries, reduces duty time lost, improves quality of life, enhances readiness, and supports fighter aircrew retention.

“Flying fighter aircraft is hard on the human body and can lead to long-term injury, especially in the neck and back,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Nelson, 35th FS commander. “The workouts and therapy target those parts of the body with a goal of preventing future injury. If pilots stick with the targeted workouts and therapies early in their flight careers, the goals are less injuries overall, better quality of life and increased readiness levels.”

Aircraft gravitational forces, or G-forces, can be physically demanding and hard on the neck and back, especially when paired with a helmet and night vision devices.

“We’re trying to work on the preventative aspect for the pilots and making sure their neck and back issues don’t get worse due to the speed they fly, and the G-forces involved with that,” said Rodrigo Almada, 35th FS tactical athletic trainer. “I work on strengthening their neck, working on their core and we try to make it easier for them to fly, whether it’s before or after.”

The athletic trainers and licensed massage therapist are strategically located inside the fighter squadrons so they are easily accessible for pilots, who have to work around their flying schedules.

“It’s important for us to be in the squadron because sometimes pilots need their neck worked on before or after they fly,” said Gayla Spencer, 8th OG licensed massage therapist. “We need to be centered in the squadron so they can have the convenience of walking down the hallway to get a treatment, whether it’s with Rodrigo or myself.”

The OHWS program has been up and running since February, and Spencer and Almada have received a lot of positive feedback since they began working with the pilots.

“I have personally seen an improvement in neck and shoulder mobility and decrease in pain since I started working with the OHWS team, and I know I’m not alone,” Nelson said. “It is truly great having them in the squadrons working with the Wolf Pack pilots.”