The Aircraft Canaries

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Brandon Shapiro
  • Airman Magazine

Twenty thousand feet above the drop zone, a multinational group of special forces prepares for a tactical insertion behind “enemy lines.” The seasoned jumpmaster positions himself on the open ramp of the C-130 Hercules, peeking his head out to confirm that the airspace below is clear to the drop zone. However, just as he goes to turn the operators loose for their descent, all hell breaks loose.


Losing control of his motor functions and fighting for consciousness, the jump lead drops to one knee; all that stands between him and falling out of the back of the plane is his white-knuckled death grip on the hydraulic arm connecting the ramp to the rest of the C-130.

Watching the entire event unfold is a physiology technician (PT), who drops everything and bolts to the quickly fading soldier. Instantly, the PT knows exactly what has happened — hypoxia set in. He motioned to another jumper for help, and the two drag the jumpmaster off the ramp, where pure oxygen is pumped into his lungs.

Once the jumpmaster recovers, he and the team make their jump. The PT has preserved a life and a mission. In short, it’s another day at the office for High Altitude Airdrop Mission Support (HAAMS) personnel.

Canaries in coal mines

At Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, sits a single-story, brick building marked with the numbers 1240. The tenants are just as unassuming as the structure they occupy. Laughter, good-natured banter and the familiar back-and-forth of a Ping-Pong ball reverberates from behind double doors.

However, as one goes further into the building, the wall-to-wall aviation portraiture accompanied by the acronym HAAMS makes it apparent that the building’s occupants are a proud crew with a family-like bond.

“We are HAAMSOC (pronounced ham sock) and we have the best job in the military,” said Staff Sgt. PT Oliver Rhudy, with a chuckle. “We are the Department of Defense’s sole entity that provides in-flight physiological support to aircrews, special operations forces, high-altitude parachutists, and other select agencies that perform unpressurized airdrop operations at 20,000 feet and above.

“Better known as the High Altitude Airdrop Mission Support Operations Center — you could say, we are a pretty big deal.”

In the early 20th century, up until the mid-80s, coal mines throughout the world had little or no ventilation. This lack of sufficient air exchange in the mines often trapped copious amounts of gasses such as methane, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide – all of which can be deadly to humans. Before devices to detect toxic gasses were available, canaries were carried into mines because of their extreme sensitivity to toxic gases. Their distress would alert miners to the presence of dangerous gasses before they were seriously affected — ultimately saving their lives.

While aircraft crews are trained in, and ultimately responsible for, recognizing the symptoms of hypoxia in themselves, the HAAMS PTs, like canaries in coal mines, are trained to be highly sensitive to the effects of high-altitude operations on the human body.

HAAMS techs often provide critical support for top-secret missions with Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, and agencies that cannot be mentioned. The team even flies missions in support of NASA and the Missile Defense Agency. They are undeniably highly valued government assets.

From psychological operations missions during the Korean War to personnel and cargo drop missions in support of the present-day global war on terrorism, HAAMS has been operational in nearly every major U.S. conflict throughout the world. For nearly 15 consecutive years, there has been a constant presence of high-altitude PT teams strategically positioned in locations overseas.

“Our sole purpose on these missions is to ensure the safety of the crewmembers by providing oxygen systems and monitoring for altitude induced threats,” Rhudy said. “Because of the dramatic effects that pressure changes at high altitudes can have on the human body, our job is an essential aspect of each mission.”

The problem with unpressurized, high-altitude flying, is that it can produce a deficiency of oxygen in the body. This deficiency is the first domino to topple, starting a series of events leading to a number of physiological issues including hypoxia, hyperventilation, gasses trapped in the gastrointestinal tract, decompression sickness and possible death.

According to HAAMS staff, one of the biggest misconceptions about higher altitudes is that there is less oxygen; in actuality, the amount of oxygen that is available at 20,000 feet or higher, is the same as it is at ground level.

The onset of physiological problems, when ascending to higher altitudes, is the product of a reduction in air pressure. This reduced pressure, in turn, decreases the percentage of oxygen that passes the blood-gas barrier, which induces both objective and subjective symptoms.

“One of the most common symptoms of hypoxia is actually euphoria,” said Lt. Col. Timothy Stout, the director of the U.S. Air Force HAAMS Operations Center. “What really worries us is the fact that hypoxia, for most people, is not an unpleasant feeling and can actually make you feel good. Because of this, individuals are less apt to correct for the situation.

“Your first symptom could be tingling, your second symptom could be blurred vision, and the third could be unconsciousness. You absolutely can die from hypoxia — more than likely not as a primary effect, but certainly as a secondary. That’s why we are there — to help identify and treat symptoms, and maintain the safety of the crew so they can focus on completing the mission.”

‘Because we are the only guys that do this, we need to be exceptional’

Each year there are more than 440 high-altitude airdrop missions conducted around the world. Remarkably, this global mission is supported by just 26 HAAMS PTs.

Upon arrival at Little Rock AFB, every PT or “HAAMster” as they are jokingly called until upgraded, must be graduated from a rigorous 21-day, mission-specific training set. Training is tightly monitored by an in-house standards and evaluations team, which ensures that the PTs are able to adapt operations to many different aircraft with various numbers of personnel.

“We aren’t just the only ones in the Air Force doing this mission, we are the only ones in the entire DoD doing this mission,” Stout said. “Because we are the only guys that do this, we need to be exceptional – bottom line. That’s why we ensure that each of our HAAMS PTs are able to provide the exact same reliable service to every user group.”

One of the many ways the HAAMS team ensures “reliable service,” is through a true understanding of those they support. A unique way they accomplish this is through their very own parachute team.

“Our parachute program is 100 percent organic and is an essential part of our formal training course,” Stout said. “We have our own static line jumpmasters as well as freefall.”

Performing high-altitude jumps themselves, allows for the PTs to better understand the operations of those they support and, in turn, makes it easier to spot when something goes awry. It also doesn’t hurt the PTs’ credibility when they show up to support a team of jumpers and their clients see that, they too, wear jump wings on their chests.

“The bottom line is — when you are looking at it from the perspective of the pilot in command or the jumpmaster, both of whom are responsible for the souls on board, us being there affords one less thing they have to worry about,” Stout said. “Not only do we know how to jump, rig portable oxygen systems, and run hoses, we are an extra set of eyes for any other safety issue that may occur. The real appreciation we receive is not from us having to be there, it’s from ensuring the success of the mission and the safety of the crew.”