Caveman Physiology In The Jet Age

May 21, 2017

This broadcast originally aired in June 2015.

Humans have now had access to the sky for more than a century thanks to engineering and ingenuity, but the evolution of the human brain has not kept up with its creations.

This disparity can lead to loss of control due to spatial disorientation.

"I always say it's the cave person's brain suddenly being transported into the jet age or even the space age,” says Tom “Mach” Schnell, director of the Operator Performance Laboratory at the University of Iowa.

“Physiologically, we’re really not well equipped with our internal sense of balance to know which way an airplane is oriented. The way we do it as pilots is we look outside, and we get the sense of orientation from what we see with our eyes.”

On this edition of River to River, host Ben Kieffer steps out of the studio to learn about innovative research being conducted at Schnell’s laboratory, where research on pilot training is being conducted for NASA, Boeing, the Defense Department, and Rockwell Collins.

Take for instance, an old L29 aircraft sitting in the lab. It looks like a regular airplane, but it contains state of the art technology. Schnell describes it as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

With this plane, a technician on the ground can connect with a pilot in the air for a military training exercise.

"[The technician's] view now suddenly has been transformed into an area of combat, and he sees the view from where he would be in actual theater."

"Then he connects to an airplane. In our case, its actually flying 20,000 feet up in the air south of Iowa City; and the guy in the back seat of our airplane experiences the same exact scenario that happens in 'virtual Afghanistan,' so the two guys can interact with each other the way they would once they go to theater."

Credit Emily Woodbury

Another technology tested in the lab is a helmet to be used in fighter jets. The helmet reflects images into the pilot's eyes, so they can see what is going on in the real world, as well as how fast they are going, how high the plane is, the status of weaponry, where enemies are, etc.

"I would say it’s like Iron Man," says Schnell. "If you know what that looked like from Tony Stark’s point of view, that’s pretty much what we’re talking about."

Kieffer and Schnell also discuss the future of drone use, automated flights, pilot fatigue, and the career outlook for pilots getting into the field today.