Protecting Pilots: Designing a Variable Cervical Neck Brace to Mitigate Ejection Injuries; Female Jet Pilot Inclusivity and the Engineer's Bridge

Gilday, Brian, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Salzar, Robert, EN-Mech/Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Allen, Timothy, EN-Biomed Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Barker, Shannon, EN-Biomed Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Baritaud, Catherine, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Fighter jet pilots are susceptible to potentially catastrophic cervical spine injuries during ejection from the cockpit of a plane, yet the lack of an adjustable safety device and the restrictive anthropometric standards which fighter pilot candidates must meet in order to get an opportunity to fly indicate that little work is being done to improve the safety or diversity of the community. The technical research report addresses the high incidence of acute cervical spine trauma among fighter pilots, especially those on the upper and lower extremities of candidate anthropometries, with the design of an adjustable cervical neck brace that can be worn and deployed by an external triggering mechanism. The STS research paper analyzes gender inclusivity bias in military occupations through the application of individual rights and duties to the role that engineers serve as a bridge between actors within the sociotechnical network. The results of the technical report will seek to provide a quantitative basis upon which to assess the viability of an adjustable safety device’s impact on broadening safety standards for fighter pilots. The STS paper will evaluate the role of the engineer in conveying these quantitative results in a manner that effectively connects both technical and societal actors in order to further human progress.

The acute spinal trauma typically exhibited during fighter pilot ejections is due to the overwhelming vertical loads that the pilots experience when their seat initially leaves the aircraft, yet a safety device to mitigate these effects has never been successfully implemented in a training or operational environment. Along those same lines, the constraint of jet ejection seat designs that optimally protects just the 50th percentile male leaves pilot candidates of extreme pilot anthropometries particularly susceptible to serious injury or death. While the ability to have an unlimited range of mobility in the cockpit without the impedance of additional equipment and have combat effective pilots is a primary concern, safety is equally important, if not more so. The arrival of the more advanced, albeit heavier, F-35 pilot helmet also provides additional motivation for the design of a device that can keep these highly trained pilots alive in emergency situations. Thus a solution to this set of evidently alarming problems was devised in the form of a three-tiered neck brace that serves as a personal airbag system.

The neck brace prototype incorporates a commercially available neck pain relieving cushion that has been repurposed and connected to a system of black-coated steel pipes and compressed air regulators. The compressed air regulators for each section of the cushion are connected to one 16g carbon dioxide cartridge and each individually adjustable based upon the computational modeling of a cervical spine using MSC ADAMS. The prototype effectively serves as a proof of concept and functionally inflates upon activation by a manual triggering system. Optimization of brace materials and inclusion of an accelerometer within the triggering mechanism will lead to potential testing with biofidelic models and further development of a device that could one day save lives. The results of the technical report provide basic validation that the development of an adjustable neck brace to widen the fighter pilot candidate pool is feasible.

Combined with the inherent risks involved with ejection seats that are designed to principally protect a very specific demographic of fighter pilot candidates, the lack of inclusivity that female pilots of extreme anthropometries face with respect to anthropometric standards raises the question as to whether or not the engineer can effectively broaden these standards through upholding individual rights and duties. Recently there has been developments in military occupational inclusivity as well as a push for increased diversity with the fighter pilot community. At the same time, technology has reached a state where the design and implementation of new safety devices is easier than ever before. Thus through the lens of Actor Network Theory, the engineer can establish a connection between the military and medical actors that are directly involved in the regulation of military safety standards by bridging the gap between the duty-driven ethics and individual rights that each actor strives to uphold in their respective professions.

The uniqueness and complexity of the approval process for technology used in military applications is characterized by military and medical officials who are each obligated, and in certain instances sworn, to adhere to separate oaths and moral codes. Yet the common denominators lie in the beliefs that each has a duty to be cognisant of the morality of one’s actions, not just the outcomes, as well as the idea that each individual has a set of inalienable rights that must not be infringed upon. Whether an actor is bound by the Hippocratic Oath or the Hierarchy of Loyalties, the engineer has the ability to bridge these two ostensibly dissimilar codes using their knowledge of the technical world. With that power and ability also comes the responsibility to actively promote progress towards a better sociotechnical world.

While further research will inevitably be required in order to provide further concrete quantitative evidence regarding an adjustable cervical neck brace for fighter pilots, it is clear that the design is feasible and that a technical solution to the problem of restrictive safety standards is possible. Given this conclusion, along with the engineer’s ability to connect technical and societal actors of disparate backgrounds, candidates of a wide range of anthropometries can one day be afforded an equal opportunity to safely fly in the cockpit as a fighter jet pilot.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Acute Neck Trauma, Injury Prevention, Female Fighter Pilot, Actor Network Theory

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Shannon Barker
STS Advisor: Catherine Baritaud
Technical Team Members: Seth Berry, Brian Gilday, Kathryn Ward

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