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Human Performance Cell seeks mission improvement through ‘Boom Initiative’

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Nick Lichtenwalner, 384th Air Refueling Squadron inflight refueling specialist, performs an inflight refueling mission in the U.S. Northwestern Region, Nov. 4, 2018. Inflight refueling specialists, commonly known as "Boom Operators," perform inflight operational checks of air refueling systems, direct receiver aircraft into air refueling position, and operate inflight controls and switches to initiate contact between tanker and receiver aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Lawrence Sena)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Nick Lichtenwalner, 384th Air Refueling Squadron inflight refueling specialist, performs an inflight refueling mission in the U.S. Northwestern Region, Nov. 4, 2018. Inflight refueling specialists, commonly known as "Boom Operators," perform inflight operational checks of air refueling systems, direct receiver aircraft into air refueling position, and operate inflight controls and switches to initiate contact between tanker and receiver aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Lawrence Sena)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Nick Lichtenwalner, 384th Air Refueling Squadron inflight refueling specialist, prepares to perform an inflight refueling mission in the U.S. Northwestern Region, Nov. 4, 2018. Team Fairchild's Human Performance Cell has created an initiative to provide inflight refueling specialists with tools to minimize strain and discomfort their bodies undergo while performing the mission. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Lawrence Sena)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Nick Lichtenwalner, 384th Air Refueling Squadron inflight refueling specialist, prepares to perform an inflight refueling mission in the U.S. Northwestern Region, Nov. 4, 2018. Team Fairchild's Human Performance Cell has created an initiative to provide inflight refueling specialists with tools to minimize strain and discomfort their bodies undergo while performing the mission. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Lawrence Sena)

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- Airmen’s ability to provide responsive air refueling and agile combat support is essential for mission success. Yet, successfully performing and completing the mission can come with a physical price. Inflight Refueling Specialists, otherwise known as “Boom Operators,” pay this toll with every mission they undertake.

“Booms [inflight refueling specialists] historically have had a lot of upper back, shoulder and neck issues,” said William Saultes, 92nd Aerospace Medical Squadron Health Promotion coordinator. “A lot of those issues stem from the nature of their job and having to maintain a posture that puts stress on the body.”

Team Fairchild’s Human Performance Cell has taken notice of the physical issues that boom operators face, and created an initiative that aims to provide these Airmen with tools to minimize the strain and discomfort their bodies undergo.

“We see inflight refueling as a unique career field,” Saultes said. “The amount of time these Airmen spend in a prone position with their necks pushed back during a refueling mission puts them at a higher risk of having upper back and neck issues. So being aware of this risk, it needed to be addressed.”

Fairchild’s HPC physical therapy team conducted a head-to-toe movement assessment on the inflight refueling specialists to find any motor control restrictions and the results showed similarities between each Airman evaluated.

“We lined up 13 boomers and performed head-to-toe 360 degree evaluations,” said Maj. John Tonarelli, 92nd Medical Operation Squadron Physical Therapy Flight commander. “We evaluated their mobility and amount of pain associated with movements in the assessment, and found that 100 percent of the Airmen evaluated were stiff in the upper back, 92 percent had poor neck coordination and 62 percent had poor shoulder coordination.”

Boom operators work in a distinctive environment, so the HPC teams also performed an analysis of the boom pods, where these Airmen perform their duties. They also analyzed their social and cultural interactions within the workplace to better understand their mission, identify any concerns in their work area and make an action plan to address those concerns.

Going directly to the Airmen in their units, allows for every factor that may affect mission performance to be evaluated, enabling a holistic change within clinical care to focus on improving more than just physical issues, Saultes said.

“We are in the preliminary stages with the booms,” Saultes said. “We’ve done the assessments, observations, written a course of action to help them and are looking forward to possibly improving their health and performance.”

Maintaining health and readiness is essential for Airmen to successfully complete the mission, and the HPC is proactively seeking out problem areas throughout Team Fairchild to provide resources. By maintaining their health, wellness and readiness, Airmen successfully support the mission of remaining the world’s finest total force leading the nation’s premier air refueling team.