| Plane guzzles, pilot pays
Recently in Bangalore: Medical researchers working with the Indian Air Force are recommending adult diapers among other equipment for fighter aircraft pilots because mid-air refuellers inducted into the fleet have changed the nature of flight operations.
Fighter aircraft of the fleet that used to fly sorties of an average 40 minutes each before the induction of mid-flight refuellers are now flying an average of four hours and, on occasions, for even nine and more hours at a stretch. The current average hours of flying in aircraft such as the Sukhoi-30MKI and the Mirage is an operational secret.
“Operational requirements in the IAF are changing fast and we have to get in newer equipment and give pilots the wherewithal to cope with the stresses of current demands,” said Group Captain V.N. Jha, chief research officer at the Institute of Aerospace Medicine (IAM), an IAF outfit, in Bangalore.
Mid-air refuelling allows a fighter aircraft, for example, a Mirage 2000, to take off from Gwalior (where they are based) in the morning, carry out an operation over Kashmir, refuel over Rajasthan for an operation on the west coast and refuel over the peninsula for an operation on the east coast before returning to base in the late afternoon or evening. Most operational sorties are, of course, carried out at night.
The IAF believes the refuellers have given its fighting capability strategic depth because it allows tactics to be concealed. However, this also means that the demands on fighter pilots have increased manifold.
Chief among the bodily requirements is the ability of pilots to retain fluid and to urinate. Jha said that in fighter aircraft with the ability to refuel, pilots have to be given adult diapers and/or urine bags. Cockpits of these aircraft are so small that fitting in an additional component for pilot comfort is impossible.
So the IAM was also giving inputs to redesign cockpits during upgradation.
Adult diapers were used by IAF pilots during a flight to Alaska last year for the multinational Exercise Cope Thunder hosted by the US Pacific Air Forces.
All aircraft in the IAF’s fighter fleet do not have auto-pilot facility that will allow the pilot to free his hands and unzip in the cockpit. But the newer aircraft and upgraded ones such as the Sukhoi-30MKI do.
“We have about seven to eight projects here (in the IAM) to research on requirements for long-duration flights. On some aircraft, we are recommending that pilots carry urine bags designed and developed by us and on some we are recommending adult diapers,” said Jha.
One of the projects with the IAM, he said, was “to relieve the agony of fighter pilots” who have to be seated inside the cockpit for long hours without being able to move.
The IAM is acquiring a new human centrifuge ' the only one was acquired in 1968 ' for about Rs 70 crore. The dynamic simulator-based centrifuge will test pilots for ability to take pressures up to 9g (nine times the force of gravity) and equipment for up to 15g.
Two other areas in which the IAF’s medical researchers are engaged in are designing night-vision goggles and training aircrew in their use and a study of spatial disorientation. The goggles now used reduce the field of vision by almost 40 per cent and give two-dimensional images. To reduce chances of spatial disorientation ' a condition in which a fighter pilot loses sense of direction because of manoeuvres in flight ' the IAM has recently imported a simulator from Sweden.