Neck pain is a problem that is experienced by about 15 percent of the general population. But a 2014 study showed that helicopter pilots in the Canadian military experience neck pain at an overwhelming rate of 75 percent, with varying degrees of severity. Now the Royal Canadian Air Force is trying to find a solution to this debilitating problem.
According to a news report in The Toronto Star, for some pilots the problem has ended their careers. Brian Wicks had been a commanding officer with the 103 Search and Rescue Squadron in Gander for 28 years when he realized he simply could no longer fly with the pain. “I kept convincing myself that I was going to be able to get through it. Eventually it just became more than I could handle, and I didn’t want to jeopardize the safety of any crews. It was time for me to give it up. That was a hard thing.” His experience is representative of that of many of his colleagues, though the Department of National Defence has not released specific information about exactly how many service people are suffering.
According to military records, helicopter pilots have long suffered from spinal problems. Much of the problem is blamed on the excessive vibration that the pilots have to endure on a constant basis, and a great deal of research and engineering has gone into designing new seats and hydraulic shock absorption systems. But with the advent of state-of-the-art weaponry and technology, helmets started being equipped with electronic displays, ballistic visors, night vision goggles and communication systems, and all of these add tremendous weight to the headgear, pulling the neck forward on a constant basis.
Each of these additions is designed to provide greater safety for the pilots, and they accomplish that goal. But their weight adds up, and in the interest of ergonomics the military has added lead counterweights to the helmets to prevent the head from falling forward. Though this helps with positioning, it adds even more weight to the overall load, and over time this injures tissue.
In addition to the weight issues, helicopter pilots around the world tend to adopt a posture that has been dubbed “the helicopter slouch,” which contributes to the problem. Wicks says, “You need to be really relaxed at the controls because they’re very sensitive, so you slouch in the seat a little bit and your arm rests on your leg so you can have very fine control. The posture is not good for sitting down at a table, let alone in a vibrating helicopter.”
To address the problem, the military has started introducing special ergonomic seats for helicopter pilots, as well as putting them through supervised strength training routines. The helmets are also being studies to see whether they can be made lighter.