The Helicopter Pilot’s Dreaded “Helo Hunch”
Flying helicopters is a musculoskeletal nightmare.
What’s the most common injury sustained by military helicopter pilots? You might think combat wounds would top the list. But in a 2010 Department of Defense survey of 10,000 U.S. helicopter pilots, 85 percent reported neck, back, and leg pain as their number one ailment—more commonly known as “helo hunch.” And some 62 percent of those suffering from the problem avoided medical treatment for fear of being grounded.
Andrea S. Phillips describes the condition in a 2011 Naval Postgraduate School thesis on back pain in Navy helicopter pilots: “In ‘helo hunch’ posture, the pilot hunches his/her back and places the lower back in an unnatural unstable posture which results in excessive fatigue. When flying the helicopter in a nose-up attitude, the pilot must hyperextend his/her neck to see out of the windscreen.”
Cockpit ergonomics seemed to be universally disliked. Pilots told Phillips: “Nothing [wrong] with the seat—it was the damn foot pedals. They could only be adjusted once on APU power. Try climbing into the helo after a 63-inch squirt flew the bird. I was gnawing on my kneecaps with my front teeth!” Said another pilot: “The problem is the seat does not go back far enough and the seat restraint is not good on the family jewels.” Also: “[The seats] suck and seem to be designed for a pilot body type completely unlike mine or anyone I know.”
Focusing on Apache pilots, Army Major Seneca Peña-Collazo notes in his 2013 monograph that helo hunch “injuries are attributed to a combination of several factors: whole-body vibration caused by the airframe, use of night-vision goggles, helmet-mounted displays in the AH-64, and poor cockpit sitting posture.” Peña-Collazo’s monograph—Women in Combat Arms: A Study of the Global War on Terror—is of special interest, as he notes that Apache pilots wear a minimum weight of 32 to 37 pounds of protective equipment for up to eight hours in a tightly confined space. After adding ammunition, flight helmets, night-vision goggles, and battery packs, the total can reach 60 pounds.
“These weight factors are not given gender-specific considerations during the development and acquisition process,” writes Peña-Collazo, “nor has the research indicated that there are any issues that have arisen to merit consideration of physical limitations of female versus male pilots.” His research does show, however, that female pilots were involved in fewer aircraft accidents than their male counterparts.